Oregon coach Mario Cristobal got a strong sense for what Penei Sewell was about the first time he interacted with the offensive lineman, at the 2017 All-Poly camp in Sandy, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City.
Already one of the top recruits in the country, coach after coach was fawning over the 16-year-old behemoth, hoping to lure the prized prospect to join their programs. Having little doubt about the physical skill set, Cristobal took a different approach, opting to test Sewell’s mental makeup at the event.
“They had stations where every college had an opportunity to work with certain players,” Cristobal said. “You had to wait in line, right, as they came to your station. All we do is we sit there and watch how all the teams are trying to butter up Penei and tell him how great he was, and I’m sitting there with our GA and saying, ‘When he gets to our station, we’re going to grind him and we’re going to find out if he’s the type of guy that we’re looking for to be like that franchise player for us.’
“He got to our station and we went at him,” Cristobal continued. “We threw the kitchen sink at him and we demanded tempo and we demanded technique, physicality, and he absolutely crushed it and was undoubtedly — immediately rose to the top of the board as the most important player of the 2018 class.”
It was a strong first impression, but hardly the last. A year later, Sewell defied the odds, earning the team’s starting left tackle job as a true freshman, a feat all the more impressive when you consider he wasn’t able to enroll early and participate in the school’s spring program.
Still, it only took a short time that summer for the Ducks coaching staff and players to realize Sewell wasn’t a normal freshman. After a handful of practices, fifth-year senior Shane Lemieux, now with the New York Giants, was telling Cristobal he wanted to play next to Sewell.
“We knew we had something special on our hands and the best part about it is that he refused to be outworked, and it showed in the way he earned the position,” Cristobal said. “… Well I mean, it wasn’t hard, man. He was launching guys off the field and into the back of the end zone.”
You have to remember, before he went into coaching, Cristobal was a first-team, All-conference offensive lineman on the dominant Miami teams in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. He’s spent plenty of time around elite talent and yet he doesn’t hesitate to label Sewell as generational and unlike any player he’s ever seen.
Of course it’s not just the talent. It’s that, combined with intrinsic drive and the rigorous practice demands at Oregon, which have Cristobal believing Sewell will make an equally quick impact at the next level. The coach quickly dismissed pre-draft chatter that Sewell’s maturity could be a hinderance.
“Those were the same scouts that doubted Justin Herbert last year and he turned out as rookie of the year,” Cristobal said. “We shoot straight here at Oregon. We have a very structured disciplined and regimented program. And so when someone leaves here, a product from the University of Oregon, from our football program, they know what it takes.”
Herbert’s first-year success came playing under Anthony Lynn, who will serve as Detroit’s offensive coordinator this season. Crisobal, not surprising, is thrilled with the connection.
As for Sewell’s impending switch to right tackle, and the challenges that may present for the rookie-to-be, Cristobal shared some practice anecdotes about how Sewell effectively ran a route and caught a pass and even lined up at center one day, passing the test with flying colors after effectively reading the defense and perfectly executing a snap.
“He will impress you right away with his ability to adapt and make a transition,” Cristobal said.
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