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Nephi Sewell enjoyed breakout season after moving to linebacker from safety. Here’s how he did it

At linebacker, Utah boasts veteran stars like juniors Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell as well as highly touted freshmen like Trey Reynolds and Mason Tufaga

Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell, right, gets in some work during spring drills at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Sewell, the brother of former Oregon great and future NFL first-rounder Penei Sewell, began his career as a safety before making the switch to linebacker.
University of Utah Athletics

Entering his third season as Utah’s linebackers coach, Colton Swan manages one of the strengths of the Ute defense.

At linebacker, Utah boasts veteran stars like juniors Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, as well as highly touted freshmen like Trey Reynolds and Mason Tufaga. Another promising freshman linebacker, Cole Bishop, has been moved to safety.

Sewell, whose brother, Penei, was an offensive lineman at Oregon and is expected to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft later this month, enjoyed a breakout season last year after switching from safety to linebacker.

“He’s a phenomenal individual. He has an uncanny ability to get to the football. It’s something like I’ve never seen,” Swan said of Nephi Sewell. “He really, really understands offense; he really, really understands defense. He puts himself in great positions to make plays. He’s very productive. He’s not the biggest man in stature but he does pack a powerful punch. He is physical. Probably his best attribute is just how he can find ways to get to the football. He has an unbelievable knack for the football.”

Asked about his performance last season, Sewell said, “I have to give credit to our D-linemen. They take on a lot of blocks for me and Devin to come clean. Shout out to coach Swan for coaching me throughout the COVID season. I got the move to linebacker and I’m glad that I have such a good coach and also thanks for (defensive coordinator Morgan) Scalley for scheming to put us in the right place each week.”

Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell looks on during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
University of Utah Athletics

Lloyd, a 2020 Butkus Award finalist, could have declared for the NFL draft but he opted instead to come back for one more season of college football.

“It was Christmas morning right there, wasn’t it? My reaction was, pretty excited,” Swan said about learning about Lloyd’s return to the program. “As everybody knows, he’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal young man. What a blessing. Very excited to have him back, the opportunity to work with him for one more year, perfecting his craft.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds and Tufaga are coming along well after signing with Utah in December and enrolling in January so they could participate in spring practices.

“Ten practices in thus far and they’re grabbing the bull by the horns. They’re doing a great job. They come to work and work hard every day,” Swan said. “They have a really good foundation coming into it already. They have a very good mindset. The foundation of hard work has already been built.

“They love spending time in the video room, wearing those projectors out,” Swan continued. “They have great attitudes, very tenacious kids, very physical. I love everything about them that I’m seeing thus far.”

Joining the group this summer is Ethan Calvert, the third highest-rated signee in program history, according to 247Sports.com.

“Ethan’s a special player. He’s had a great high school career. He’s very highly touted across the country,” Swan said. “The expectations are high. But in this program, and with me, nothing ever is given, it’s always earned. So the expectation is for him to come in and work hard, just like everybody else, and earn that spot.

“If it’s going to be on the field, you’ve got to earn it. But my expectations are high. He was a very good high school player and I’ve got to do a very good job in coaching him and putting him in position. I want him to come in and earn it and work for it, which I know he will. That’s his mentality, too.”

Sewell also likes what he’s seen from the incoming freshmen.

“I’m actually glad that they’re here. It’s not an easy decision to leave your family and come in early,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with the new guys. They’re picking up the defense pretty well. Obviously, there are mistakes but we’re coming to the end of (spring ball) and I’m proud of them. They’re working hard to get better.”