It was supposed to be an off week for Hank Fraley. The UCLA Bruins were on a bye and he was going to make a trip home to see his wife and kids, who were still in Minnesota, where he had coached the previous three years.
But the job never really stops for a coach.
Instead, Fraley took a detour to Utah to get an up-close look at one of the nation’s hottest offensive line prospects that year. It was some kid named Penei Sewell. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Four years later, Fraley, who is entering his fourth season with the Detroit Lions, will finally get the chance to coach Sewell, the franchise’s first-round draft pick this offseason.
“He actually was probably a little bigger and heavier,” Fraley said Wednesday about the trip to see Sewell in high school. “Went out and saw him play and he was dominant then.”
They don’t all hit, but coaches tend to have a good idea which high school kids have pro potential. Sewell certainly had the “it” factor, even then. And Fraley praised his newest pupil for the hard work he’s put in to this point to reach his potential.
But that process restarts at this level, where Sewell will have to prove himself all over again. Fraley compared it to his playing days, when he was the starting center for the Browns and the franchise drafted offensive tackle Joe Thomas with the No. 3 pick in 2007.
“I played with some great talented players,” Fraley said. “To say Joe Thomas was gonna be who Joe Thomas is after his career? I know this, when he came in to OTAs and did what he did, we were like, ‘Oh, wait until pads come on.’ And then when he did it with pads on in training camp, we were like, ‘He’s got a chance to become really good.’
“Could I tell you he was gonna play that many starts or that many snaps? No. And do what he did? I can’t, because I can’t predict the future. If I could, man, I should really get in a different business here and start making money different ways. But (Sewell) has the talent and he has the work ethic to be a really good player. Where does it go from here? We’ll see. It’s a day-to-day process.”
Unfortunately, Sewell contracted the COVID-19 virus and wasn’t able to attend last weekend’s rookie minicamp, so Fraley is having to wait a couple extra weeks to get his hands on the player. But the early results in the classroom, via Zoom, have been reaffirming.
“He’s been great like that,” Fraley said. “He’s hungry. And that’s all I’m asking is for him to be hungry and let’s go from there. Let everybody else write about you, write about our O-line, write about everybody else. We just go to work. Who cares what everybody’s saying. We’ve got to put the work and time into it and all that stuff. The chips will fall where they may, and that’s because of the effort and what we put out there on the field.”
Fraley did acknowledge there will be some rust that will need to be knocked off. Sewell hasn’t played in a while, opting out of the 2020 season at Oregon after the Pac-12 delayed its season.
Still, echoing coach Dan Campbell’s comments from the weekend, Fraley doesn’t expect that to be a notable issue.
“Young man goes out there, he works his tail off,” Fraley said. “He worked his tail off to get ready for his pro day. He was with good people out there where he trained all the time. I would look at it no different than somebody getting injured having to get back to — he’s not rehabbing anything though — but just getting back in the swing off things.
“I see him picking it up pretty quickly. He’s been great in meetings, he’s got a good football IQ, asks great questions, even more advanced questions that you’d think more veterans ask. He’s done a nice job to prepare himself for this point.”