Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal knew he had something special in Penei Sewell almost immediately. Tipped off by a member of his coaching staff who used to be neighbors with Sewell back in American Samoa, Cristobal only needed to see a couple of plays from Sewell’s high school tape to know he was the real deal.
“It took about two, three clips to realize this is exactly what we need to establish ourselves a certain way here in the Pac-12 and at the University of Oregon,” Cristobal told Detroit media on Friday morning.
After grilling him at the All-Poly camp, they decided Sewell was not only their guy, but the most important piece of their 2018 recruiting class. And it wasn’t long after that that his teammates noticed something special, too.
Shane Lemieux—a two-year starter at the time, who has since gone on to be drafted by the Giants, starting nine games as a rookie—immediately burst into Cristobal’s office, demanding he play next to Sewell.
“He just talked about how comfortable he was, how confident he was that if they were playing side-by-side, how they could change things,” Cristobal recalled. “How we could become a much more physically dominant offensive line.”
What exactly did Lemieux see?
“It wasn’t hard, man, he was launching guys off the field into the back of the endzone,” Cristobal said.
From there, he was off. Sewell was immediately plugged into the lineup as a freshman and immediately thrived. He earned freshman All-American despite missing six games with an injury. In 2019, he didn’t allow a single sack, received PFF’s highest grade among any offensive player in the nation, and he walked away with the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s best lineman.
Now headed to the Detroit Lions, Sewell faces another challenge: moving to right tackle. General manager Brad Holmes made it clear he’ll start there with Taylor Decker sticking at left tackle.
Though Sewell has been training some at that position ever since opting out of the 2020 season at Oregon, it’s not necessarily an easy transition. However, Cristobal has seen Penei adapt before. Once in practice, Sewell was trying to prove his worth as an eligible receiver by running tight end routes. Cristobal challenged him to play center, instead.
“Please, if you had the ball in your hand, you wouldn’t know what to do with it at center. He’s like, ‘Really? Okay, watch this.’”
Sewell then went under center, correctly called out all the assignments the center needs to know, plus what the tight end would need to do. Still, Cristobal pushed him even further.
“Yeah, but you can’t snap.”
First snap: “Right on the money.”
Safe to say, Cristobal isn’t worried about Sewell transitioning to right tackle in Detroit.
“He will transition and he will impress you right away with his ability to adapt.”
In the end, Cristobal thinks Sewell is going to be a fine fit in Detroit. He saw the way the Lions war room reacted when they landed the pick, and how it matched the energy level at Sewell’s draft party, which he attended. And that talent... it’s rare.
“He’s a generational player. I haven’t seen one like him.”