This is the deepest we’ve been in a long, long time. We have good ball players who look the part, people who move like they’re supposed to move and work hard, so I’m excited about the kids. —Utah cornerbacks coach/co-special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah
SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of his players' lackluster performance Tuesday, Utah cornerbacks coach/co-special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah offered an assessment that had the feel of a sermon, full of hope and possibility, grounded by the grueling realities of college football.
In Tuesday’s practice, players made mistakes and their goal-line defense left a lot to be desired, but Shah is seeing something different, even in failure, that makes him optimistic about the position group’s potential in the 2018 season.
“This is the deepest we’ve been in a long, long time,” said Shah. “We have good ball players who look the part, people who move like they’re supposed to move and work hard, so I’m excited about the kids. I’m excited about the group. I’m optimistic, always, that we can at least hold our own and more importantly, that we have the depth to be sustainably good.”
He said the players are “making strides” and sometimes that means the progress is harder for outsiders to see than coaches.
“It’s not like everybody is drinking out of a water hose right now,” he said. “Like for Tareke Lewis, who got to us at the beginning of February, his head was absolutely spinning. To see him slow down, and tell me, ‘Coach, I know what I did wrong, and I get it.’ That’s more important to me than him making a play because he can make plays off of his athleticism.”
In fact, the cornerbacks as a group are so athletic, most have relied on that raw talent to carry them to this point in their football careers. But competing in the Pac-12 requires technical skills that can be frustrating and overwhelming to players who’ve risen to the top because of their speed and agility.
“Everybody is a really good athlete,” he said of the corners competing for Utah this season. “But they have no discipline and very little technique (when they first arrive). We’re asking them to do so many different things.”
The natural leaders of the group are junior Julian Blackmon and sophomore Jaylon Johnson.
Blackmon, a junior from Layton High, led the secondary last year, earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors and was the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
He started all 13 games last season and led Utah with four interceptions and 10 passes defended. He finished the season with 48 tackles.
“I enjoy what Julian continues to do, day in and day out,” Shah said. “Not only is he mastering the small nuances, I just like his leadership. Even today, right now, we did not have a good showing today, goal line was awful he was the first person to say, “Let it go. Let it go! Next play! Next series!’ And he kept yelling it until everybody had started to kind of get a little fire, and it was good.”
One of the things Blackmon has been doing that bodes well for the Utes is being the player that keeps a bad play or series from becoming a bad game.
“We will have hard games,” Shah said. “And somebody, a player, has to be the catalyst to restart, hit the reset button for the team, and say, ‘Alright, let’s go! Let’s not worry about that.’ And he’s not by nature a loud and boisterous kid, so it makes me happy that he’s doing it. I love that he’s embracing that.”
Johnson, a sophomore from Fresno, California, played all 12 regular season games before missing the bowl game due to a surgery that will keep him sidelined throughout spring camp. He earned 25 tackles last season and tied for the team-high six pass breakups. He was second in passes defended with seven.
“(He’s a leader) because he just commands it,” Shah said. “He’s the consummate worker. As much as it pains him not to be here, he sits in film, ‘Coach, can I grade somebody?’”
Shah said there is a mixture of returning players and new athletes that promise to give the group depth that they haven’t enjoyed in quite a few years.
Lewis, a junior from Palatka, Florida, signed with Utah in 2017 but had to complete academic requirements after playing for Riverside Community College, where he earned First Team All-SCFA National Divisional Central League cornerback
Tyrone Smith, a junior from Fresno, California, who redshirted last year because of an injury could play a significant role after playing receiver his first two seasons at Utah.
Josh Nurse, a junior who attended Blinn College (Brenham, Texas) in 2016 and then walked on during Utah’s preseason camp in 2017. He later received a scholarship, and appeared in 12 games last year, mostly on special teams. He’s moved between corner and safety.
“It’s been good to have him here (at practices),” Shah said, “because there is so much he needs to work on in order to be a player that we can trust and rely on in the fall. To have him in the spring is awesome. To have him making plays, even to make mistakes, and to have him say, ‘Oh, that’s how it is supposed to happen’ has been good.”
Nygel King, a sophomore from Tomball, Texas, played sparingly on special teams as a freshman.
“(King) continues to improve,” Shah said. “He’s been with me for awhile, and I’d like to see him starting to grasp the body movements that are required from a corner. You can’t just do what you want to do. You have to do what we’re coaching you to do. And it’s starting to see, infinitesimal steps because that technique is going to allow me to do this.”
Tre Strong, after playing two seasons at Montana State, the junior walked on at Utah in the spring of 2017. He could practice last year but not play because of the NCAA transfer rules.
Shah said he’s adjusting well to life in a Pac-12 defense.
“Tre Strong is showing up,” Shah said. “I really like Tre.”
Javelin Guidry Jr., a sophomore from Murrieta, California, played all 13 games as a freshman with four starts at nickel back. He finished the 2017 season with 31 tackles, five paces defended and a 14-yard interception return against Arizona.
“Jav is poised to be pretty special,” Shah said, a reverent tone in his voice. “He’s poised to do something really good. His speed is ridiculous.”
A high school track champion, Shah said he’s not just the fastest player on Utah’s team.
“I would dare say in the conference,” he said. “If somebody is faster than 10.13 (a California state record in the 100 meters), I want to see them. Somebody who is playing football, among football players, I don’t know anybody at any Pac-12 school that’s faster than this kid. And he’s starting to play as fast as he is.”