This is the 14th in a series on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020. From 1946 to 2005, Outland Trophy winners were profiled in a book by Gene Duffey, Sixty Years of the Outland Trophy. We are catching up with the last 15 winners.
(Offensive tackle Penei Sewell was the first Outland Trophy winner from Oregon and also the initial recipient from American Samoa, a U.S. Territory. He was selected seventh overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2021 NFL Draft and is playing his first year of professional football this fall.)
By Gene Duffey, Author
American Samoa is a small group of islands in the South Pacific,
4,800 miles southwest of Los Angeles. The population is 55,000, scattered around 75 square miles.
It’s also the birthplace of Penei Sewell, the steamroller offensive tackle who won the Outland Trophy at Oregon in 2019.
There are more links with American Samoa and American college football than you would think.
Jack Thompson, an excellent quarterback at Washington State in the 1970s was nicknamed the “Throwin’ Samoan.” Thompson, also born in American Samoa, set the NCAA record for career passing yards in 1978 before college football turned into a pass-first, run-last game.
Two of Sewell’s uncles played in the NFL. Richard Brown, a linebacker at San Diego State, spent 10 years in the NFL with the Rams, Chargers, Browns and Vikings. Isaac Sopoaga, a defensive tackle at Hawaii, lasted 12 years in the NFL, mostly with the 49ers.
Penei’s father, Gabe, was an assistant high school coach in American Samoa.
Between Sewell’s size and lineage, he was destined to become a football player — a really good football player.
When Penei was about 5, he remembers former USC safety Troy Polamalu and several of his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates coming to American Samoa to put on a summer camp. A typical kid, Penei, too young to participate, spent most of the time running around, watching the older kids go through the drills at the camp. He became hooked on football.
“I think that left a lasting impression on Penei and all my sons,” Gabe Sewell told the Salt Lake City Deseret News years later.
Gabriel, the oldest of Gabe’s four sons, walked on at Nevada and played defensive back and linebacker. His senior year, in 2019, he finished fourth on the team in tackles.
Nephi, the second son, played defensive back at Utah. He appeared in three games as a freshman in 2019. Noah, two years younger than Penei, followed him to Oregon and played linebacker.
When Noah signed with the Ducks in 2020, Penei said, “I can’t wait to have him here.” But they never got to play together for Oregon. Noah started at linebacker as a true freshman that season and tied for the team lead in tackles. But before the season’s delayed start, Penei decided to sit out his entire junior year, waiting for the NFL Draft.
Penei did get to play against Gabriel in 2018 in a77-6 victory over Nevada. Nephi’s Utah team beat Oregon, 32-25, in 2018 at Salt Lake City. Penei got revenge on Nephi in the 2019 Pac-12 championship game, helping the Ducks beat the Utes, 35-14.
Penei had already proven himself an NFL prospect in two years on the field at Eugene.
He had enrolled at Oregon for the spring semester in 2019. By the fall he started on the offensive line as a true freshman, blocking alongside four redshirt juniors. The Ducks won Sewell’s first college game, beating Bowling Green, 58-24.
This is what Gabe Sewell envisioned in 2012 when he moved his family, wife Arlene, four boys and one girl, over 5,300 miles from American Samoa to St. George’s, Utah.
Penei was only 11 at the time. All he knew was American Samoa. He didn’t want to move to Utah. Fortunately, it wasn’t his decision.
Gabe wanted his sons exposed to college recruiters in the United States. He chose St. George’s because he had a sister there, easing the transition.
Penei first played organized football in seventh grade. By the ninth grade he was already a mammoth 6-3 and almost 300 pounds. Get out of the way defenders!
Before his sophomore year of high school Penei was attracting attention from major schools. UCLA was the first to offer a scholarship, all the way back to March 2016. Utah, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Brigham Young soon followed with offers.
By his junior year the recruiters were swarming around Sewell, seeing him push opponents around. He took his official visits to Nevada, where Gabriel was playing, Oregon, Utah, where Nephi played, Alabama and USC.
Nick Saban, the king of college football coaches, and two Alabama assistants made a home visit to Penei. Everyone knew about him.
Sewell loved the physical part of the game.
“I became this person where I’m just trying to really run through somebody,” said Sewell. “I guess all that aggression I’m holding in just comes out. I want to run through everybody and anybody.”
Sewell traced that aggression back to his upbringing in American Samoa.
“When I was like 10 years old, playing on the Island, I was going up against 14-year-olds, twice my size,” Sewell said to former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz. “I was getting blown up. You learn how to hit. That childhood, playing on the Island, kind of helped me.”
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal liked Sewell the first time he saw him on film in high school. “I remember him being over the moon,” he said of Sewell. “The guy is going to change our program.”
Cristobal should recognize a good offensive lineman when he sees one. He played on the offensive line at Miami for Dennis Erickson from 1988-92, helping the Canes win national championships in 1988 and ’91.
Despite Sewell suffering a torn labrum at the start of his senior season in high school, major colleges still were keenly interested in getting him on their campuses.
Oregon appeared to be the perfect college for Sewell with its history of players from the South Pacific.
Oregon defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who was born in Tonga, was a finalist for the Outland Trophy in 2005 and went on to become a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens. Ngata, an FWAA All-American, spent 13 seasons in the NFL.
Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was born in Hawaii with Polynesian roots, won the Heisman Trophy in 2014 and was the second overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Sewell enrolled at Oregon in the spring of 2018 and was starting at left tackle as a true freshman when the season started in September. That surprised no one.
“Absolutely they knew what they were getting,” said James Crepea who covered the Ducks for The Oregonian. “Just his sheer brute force, plus the mobility of the guy.”
Tyrell Crosby, the previous year’s starter at left tackle, was gone, a fifth-round pick of Detroit. Help wanted. Sewell immediately answered the ad.
“Oregon certainly needed him,” said Crepea. “There was not a lot of competition for the job (at left tackle).”
Sewell played like a veteran from the beginning. He started the first six games as a freshman, five wins and an overtime loss to Stanford, before suffering a high right ankle injury.
Minus Sewell, Oregon lost three of the next four games. He did return to play against Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl, a 7-6 victory. Sewell allowed only one sack in the seven games he did play and was never called for a holding penalty. It was a remarkable season for a true freshman.
Sewell was ready to go when the Ducks opened the 2019 season against Auburn in Arlington, Texas. It was just the type of challenge that Sewell lives for, a test against the best.
“I was up more for Auburn that Oregon State or Stanford,” he said.
He played against some of the best defensive ends in the country. Auburn’s Marlon Davidson became a second-round draft choice of Atlanta in 2020, Utah’s Bradlee Anae was drafted in the fifth round by Dallas and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes was named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2018. Minnesota drafted Willekes in the seventh round in 2020.
Sewell didn’t just block people or knock them down. He exploded through them.
“He’s a guy that comes in every day just trying to blast people,” said Oregon safety Brady Breeze, a teammate of Sewell’s. “He’s like a little kid in a giant body.”
That’s Penei Sewell.
“I like to play real physical,” he said to Ben Swanson of DenverBronocs.com. “I like to use my body type to my advantage and to really get up and under people’s chin. I’m coming off the ball every play with violent intentions.”
Ryan Thorburn, formerly of the Eugene Register-Guard, seconded that opinion. “He’s a gentle giant,” said Thorburn. “He doesn’t look that heavy. He carries the weight very well.”
The 6-6 Sewell played his sophomore season at 335 pounds.
Sewell proved he was more than size and strength. His quickness allowed him to get off the line and block linebackers and defensive backs.
“He’s dominant in both the run and pass game,” Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabel told Bruce Feldman of The Athletic. “What separates him from other offensive linemen is what he does in space on screens.”
He pancaked three Arizona guys on one play. That’s a good day’s work right there.
“He moves like a tight end,” Oregon’s coach said of Sewell. “He reminds me of (University of Miami great defensive tackle) Jerome Brown playing the offensive line. He has the instincts of a 10-year NFL veteran.”
Sewell bounced back from his ankle injury and played even better as a sophomore, if that was possible. He turned into Mt. St. Helen’s in pads.
“I’m just trying to see what I did last year and improve on it,” Sewell said to Chris Hummer of 24/7 Sports. “I just came in here and did whatever Cristobal asked of me.”
The Ducks lost the 2019 opener to Auburn, after leading most of the way, and dropped a three-point game at Arizona State in November. The loss to Auburn cost Oregon a spot in the College Football Playoffs (CFP) semifinals.
The other games were all victories, completing a 12-2 season by whipping Utah, 37-15, in the Pac-12 Championship Game, then edging Wisconsin, 28-27, in the Rose Bowl.
Oregon averaged over 35 points a game. Somebody must have been blocking. Maybe Penei Sewell?
“He was tremendous (as a sophomore), a generational type of player,” said James Crepea of The Oregonian. “I’d compare him to the best (offensive) linemen of all time, in the same category with an Orlando Pace.”
Pace, who won the Outland Trophy in 1996 at Ohio State, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft by the St. Louis Rams.
In high school, Sewell enjoyed the anonymity of being an offensive lineman, even when he was the beset one on the field. That evaporated quickly when he played in college. He was too good to overlook.
Shane Lemieux, who lined up next to Sewell for two years at left guard, went even further, suggesting that Sewell deserved to win the Heisman Trophy in 2019.
“He was the best player in the country,” Lemieux said to Thorburn. “If it’s really about the best player in college football, he should win it. If you’re a normal fan watching Oregon football on TV, you’re going to notice him immediately.”
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy that year in a runaway. Sewell did not finish in the Top 10.
Sewell settled for winning the Morris Trophy as the outstanding lineman, offensive or defensive, in the Pac-12 and the Outland Trophy. He didn’t allow a sack all season and gave up just seven pressures on Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert.
“I didn’t really expect this,” Sewell said after accepting the Outland. Then Penei recalled where he came from. “For all the kids on the Island. You can all do that.”
Sewell decided not to play the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, instead waiting for the 2021 NFL Draft the following April. He went to the Detroit Lions with the seventh overall pick.
In his post draft teleconference, Sewell sent a warning to the rest of the NFL. “To be honest, I haven’t even started yet,” he said.
Cristobal could vouch for that. “The way he practices and competes, this is his passion,” said Cristobal. “He’s really done a great job helping us establish a certain (culture) upfront.”
Later, on a Zoom call after being picked by the Lions, Sewell talked about how his personality changes on the field.
“I become this person where I’m just trying to run through somebody,” he said. “I guess all that aggression I’m holding in just comes out. I want to run through everybody and anybody that’s going against my goals and what I want to accomplish.”