Utah safety Nephi Sewell was content with just practicing and not playing in games this year, while sitting out as a transfer from Nevada and looking forward to the next two seasons with the Utes.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and the athletic department's compliance staff, though, kept prodding him to pursue a NCAA waiver that would allow him to play this season. Somehow, they must have known something.
Due to injuries to All-America safety Julian Blackmon and his primary backup, R.J. Hubert, in the Pac-12 championship game this month, the recently activated Sewell will start for Utah in the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas on New Year’s Eve.
Sewell's availability is a “huge blessing,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “If we didn't have him, we'd be in real trouble.”
Sewell’s first appearance for Utah came Nov. 30 vs. Colorado. And then he was hastily promoted during the conference title game vs. an Oregon team that featured his brother Penei, the Outland Trophy winner and a unanimous All-American as a sophomore offensive tackle.
“I wasn't expecting it,” Sewell said of his instant opportunity, “but I was prepared for it. I've never been on a stage like that. It was a lot to take in, but I was ready for it. It was exciting.”
Sewell made four tackles in the game, but he and his defensive teammates couldn’t stop Oregon’s CJ Verdell from running 70 and 31 yards for fourth-quarter touchdowns that secured the Ducks’ 37-15 victory and a Rose Bowl berth vs. Wisconsin. That showcase will come in the middle of the Orem-based (formerly of St. George) Sewell family’s three bowl games in four days. Nevada linebacker Gabe Sewell Jr. will conclude his college career Jan. 3 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl vs. Ohio.
Nephi Sewell’s abbreviated season enables him to preserve a year’s eligibility, via the NCAA’s four-game limit for redshirting players.
He recovered from a major neck injury in the opening game of his junior season at Desert Hills High School and has kept playing football (a doctor told him it is “unlikely” his neck could be broken again, by Sewell’s account). The 6-foot, 210-pound Sewell played two seasons for Nevada, starting for the Wolf Pack in 2018 before transferring to Utah this past spring. “Everyone wants to play with their brother at the next level,” he said. “It was fun, but my heart was always at home.”
The family attends to a grandmother and other relatives in Orem, and Sewell wanted to help. He commuted to the Utah campus during the spring semester, and his family's needs were the basis of his hardship appeal to the NCAA to waive the requirement of a year's residency and make him eligible to play as a transfer.
The news finally came in late November. That’s how Sewell found himself on the Rice-Eccles Stadium field Nov. 30 vs. Colorado, initially playing on special teams. And then he took on a much bigger role after Blackmon and Hubert were hurt against Oregon, and was blocked by his brother on Verdell’s 70-yard run. Sewell also was positioned near the line of scrimmage when Verdell broke free for another score.
After the game, Nephi and Penei shared a long embrace. “I was sad, but I was happy for him,” Nephi Sewell said. “I told him that everything that's coming his way this year, he deserves it.”
The in-game reunion was “definitely a little weird,” Sewell said. “We're usually on the same side.”
That was the case at Desert Hills, and successfully so. In the 2015 Class 3AA state championship game, Nephi Sewell rushed for 243 yards on 24 carries in a 28-27 win over rival Pine View at Rice-Eccles Stadium. That performance fulfilled a promise that he would help his brother win a title.
Penei Sewell now claims a Pac-12 championship. “Hopefully,” Nephi Sewell said, “I can get one before my time here ends.”
Due to the Pac-12′s scheduling rotation, the brothers could meet next season only in another conference championship game. Their youngest brother, Noah, also will play for Oregon in 2020 as a highly recruited linebacker.
NO. 12 UTAH VS. TEXAS
When • Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN