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‘I’m not complaining’: Utah’s Nephi Sewell latest in a line of Ute defenders to move from safety to linebacker

Says Utah coach Kyle Whittingham of his converted linebacker: ‘He’s a physical player that can hit you and deliver a blow’

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) is pressured by Utah defensive back Nephi Sewell (29) and linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) during Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

Nephi Sewell is ticketed to play alongside Devin Lloyd at linebacker for the Utah Utes this season. The former Desert Hills High star, who was the Deseret News’ 3AA MVP in 2016, is making the switch from safety. He’s expected to fill the vacancy created by the graduation of Francis Bernard.

“I’m not complaining,” said Sewell, who explained there are things at both safety and linebacker that fit his style of play. “I like both positions.”

There are family ties at one of the spots. Older brother Gabriel was a star linebacker at Nevada, racking up 282 tackles as a four-year starter. Younger brother, Noah, is a freshman linebacker at Oregon.

Another younger sibling, Penei, has declared for the next NFL draft after winning the Outland Trophy as a left tackle for the Ducks last season.

Nephi Sewell also left the Beehive State, beginning his collegiate career at Nevada. He later transferred to Utah to be closer to family and became eligible late last season — seeing action against Colorado, the Pac-12 title game game against Oregon, and then as a starter in the Alamo Bowl. Injuries to Julian Blackmon and R.J. Hubert moved him into extensive action over the last two outings.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but I was for sure prepared for it. I’ve never been on a stage like that before,” Nephi Sewell said after making four tackles in the loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 title tilt. “The atmosphere, there was so many people. It was a lot to take in, but I was ready for it.”

Sewell is now the latest high-profile player to make the switch from safety to linebacker for the Utes in recent years. Brian Blechen did it. So, too, did Chase Hansen.

Whittingham, though, said the 6-foot, 225-pound Sewell is different than those two. Physically, he’s more like former Utah linebacker Sunia Tauteoli.

“Nephi has exceptional quickness. That’s really the strength of his game — his quickness and his lateral movement,” Whittingham said. “He’s also a physical player that can hit you and deliver a blow.”

Sewell, he added, has made a smooth transition to linebacker.

“This is really where he belongs,” Whittingham said. “He’s much more comfortable and in his element in the box rather than at the safety position.”

Teammate Lloyd, who will start at Utah’s other starting linebacker spot for the second straight year, has similar thoughts about Sewell. He sees the position a better fit for Sewell.

“He’s very aggressive downhill, great tackler, great in space. So I think that element has helped us in terms of bringing that to the room,” Lloyd said.

In three games with the Utes last season, Sewell netted 14 tackles at safety. From 2017-18, he played in 23 games for Nevada — racking up 111 tackles during his time in Reno.

Colton Swan, who coaches Utah’s linebackers, said Sewell is “a really savvy football player.” However, he hasn’t played a lot of linebacker.

“There’s some nuances at that position that you’ve got to get familiar with as far as your eye progression goes,” said Swan, who is seeing progress. “He’s starting to see the blocking schemes in front of him and fit in correctly and he is making great strides. I’m really happy with where he’s at. It’s still a competition amongst him and the rest of the guys, but, (I’m) really satisfied with how he’s handling with what’s being put on his plate, for sure.”

Sewell is competing for the starting job with sophomore Andrew Mata’afa and junior Jeremy Mercier. Freshman Sione Fotu is behind Lloyd at the other spot on the depth chart. Additional linebackers in the mix include sophomore Hayden Furey and junior Moroni Anae.