Nephi Sewell’s switch from safety to linebacker is critical for the young Utes defense

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Nephi Sewell, poses for a portrait on Friday, December 20, 2019.

Kyle Whittingham has said that Nephi Sewell is the “odds-on favorite” to start at linebacker opposite Devin Lloyd.

The University of Utah football coach dropped that tidbit regarding the redshirt junior during an ESPN700 interview on Oct. 2, one week before fall camp began. The Utes practiced for the ninth time on Monday. In that time, they have been in full pads in a small handful of sessions and conducted a live scrimmage on Saturday afternoon.

With the benefit of some film since camp began, Whittingham and linebackers coach Colton Swan are now in a better position to decide whether or not Sewell, who is transitioning from safety to linebacker, can start immediately when the season begins Nov. 7 vs. Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“He’s a really savvy football player,” Swan said Monday on a Zoom call with reporters. “He’s starting to see the blocking schemes in front of him and fitting correctly. He’s making great strides and I’m really happy with where he’s at. It’s still a competition amongst him and the rest of the guys, but really satisfied with how he’s handling what’s being put on his plate.”

Added Whittingham: “He’s made the transition, really very smoothly, from safety to linebacker, and this is really where he belongs. He seems much more comfortable and his element in the box rather than the safety position.”

Sewell began his college career at Nevada, playing in 23 games at safety between the 2017 and 2018 seasons before transferring to Utah. Sewell received an NCAA waiver in late November and played in the final three games of the 2019 season, including starting the Alamo Bowl, but a potential move down to linebacker was always a possibility.

“I feel confident going in, especially with three weeks left (until a game),” Sewell said. “I’m just living and learning. As each day goes by, I feel more and more confident leading up to game week.”

Lloyd will be a redshirt junior this fall, having registered a team-leading 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks on his way to All-Pac-12 honorable-mention status in 2019. Beyond Lloyd, though, Swan’s linebacker room is young and inexperienced. Andrew Mata’afa played in seven games last season as a redshirt freshman, while Hayden Furey played in five as a walk-on true freshman, but all on special teams.

The maturation of Sewell and the seemingly-immediate need for him to pick up the new position are glaring points of emphasis for a defense that is trying to replace nine starters from a season ago.

Keep in mind, Sewell’s move from safety to linebacker is coming in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled 12 Utah spring practices. With 75% of spring ball wiped out, so, too, were live reps Sewell could have used.

“I feel like I, personally, didn’t lose any learning time,” Sewell said. “We definitely held Zoom meetings with Coach Swan. During those times, a lot of us definitely went into our playbook and take it into our own hands, make it our defense. I feel comfortable in our defense.”

QB contenders will remain a mystery

Utah was scheduled to move from three quarterback candidates to two beginning with Monday’s practice, but Whittingham won’t be announcing who those two are.

“We’re going to keep that to ourselves because there really is no reason to tip your hand, none at all,” Whittingham said. “It doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t provide us any advantage, and so that’s how I’ll handle that.”

Utah will scrimmage again for the second and final time Saturday afternoon, at which point Whittingham hopes to have a clear picture of who the starter will be. Per Whittingham, the earliest he would reveal the starter would be Wednesday or Thursday of game week, meaning Nov. 4 or 5.

Nate Ritchie in the mix to start at safety

Whittingham has been impressed enough this month with Nate Ritchie that he is not ruling out the true freshman as a potential starter at safety.

Junior RJ Hubert is the projected starter at free safety, with senior Vonte Davis slotted in at strong safety, but Whittingham painted that situation as three guys looking to secure two spots.

“He is at the point where he is in the mix as one of the two-best safeties,” Whittingham said. “We put the two-best guys out there, doesn’t matter if they’re labeled a strong safety or a free safety. Some years they’re interchangeable and they can interchange responsibilities during the course of a game, but he’s in the mix right now and it’s a fierce battle and we will continue to see who’s going to be the starters.”

Whittingham noted Monday that there are at least a half-dozen true freshmen in the mix to play significant snaps, if not start, including Ritchie. None of the names Whittingham rattled off came as a surprise.

Offensive lineman Jaren Kump will make his collegiate debut this fall after serving a two-year LDS mission. Clark Phillips III, the highest-rated recruit in program history, is moving toward starting at nickel. Multidimensional running back Ty Jordan is unlikely to start, but will crack the two-deep and should figure into the plans. A pair of defensive ends, Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger, remain threats to crack the two-deep.

“There’s always concern about starting true freshmen, but this year, we have no choice,” Whittingham said. “We’re going to have to start true freshmen, I would bet.”