Oregon OT prospect Penei Sewell: Seeing Justin Herbert NFL draft ‘slander’ hurt

Penei Sewell felt the sting before he entered the NFL prospect conversation.  

The Oregon left tackle says he’s on social media, so “to say I don’t ever see (criticism) is a lie.” 

But before his talent and potential were the focus of fan and evaluator scrutiny, Sewell watched his college teammate Justin Herbert go through the wringer. Questions swirled about whether the Oregon gun-slinger, who skews quiet by nature, could adequately lead an NFL locker room.  

“To see the slander Justin Herbert was getting, I even hurt,” Sewell told USA TODAY Sports over Zoom on Thursday. “I was even hurting. I took it personal, too, like, ‘Why y’all even think this and that?’ Then I was like – just wait. Just wait ’til he has his opportunity. Justin Herbert will do Justin Herbert things. 

“He did that.” 

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Penei Sewell opted out of his final season at Oregon due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

Herbert, whom the Chargers drafted sixth overall in 2020 after Philip Rivers’ retirement, joined the depth chart behind Tyrod Taylor. The rookie was thrust into action earlier than some expected when Taylor suffered a punctured lung in September. Herbert started 15 games, completed 66.6% of passes for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He rushed for another 234 yards and five scores en route to being named the Associated Press' NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Sewell projects as Oregon’s next top-10 draft pick, a favorite in mock drafts (including USA TODAY Sports’) to land with the Cincinnati Bengals at the fifth overall pick. But Sewell knows that doesn’t shield him from questions and doubts. The conversation fuels him. 

“It creates a whole different motivation for me to see people speak on my name that negatively or any way,” said Sewell, speaking in partnership with USAA. “So I kind of keep it to myself, keep it bundled in so when I come in between those lines, it’s game time. It’s go time and I got to really show people and really speak and say ‘yeah, you’re wrong’ with my actions.” 

Sewell aimed to convey that message – that his actions speak loudly – when meeting with NFL teams in the draft leadup. His athleticism during the 2019 season was so dominant that analytics site Pro Football Focus graded him highest of any offensive lineman since it began grading college linemen in 2014. Sewell allowed just one sack in 1,376 snaps across two seasons. But Sewell opted out of the COVID-19-complicated 2020 season, giving teams a year less of tape and a year more to scrutinize how he spent his time. That’s where he says his discipline, shaped significantly by family members in the military, was key. 

“It was really just me,” Sewell said. “And to really lock in more on that and to come day in and stay true to a routine was a little difficult at first. Right then and there, I wanted to go back to the people I trust, the people I talk to. So I started off with that, and then from there on, they went to my uncles, and it was like a family tree asking for help and asking for advice. So again, going back to the foundation I had – the discipline. 

“Finding my routine, being comfortable with my routine and going from there.” 

As the #NFLDraft gets closer, thank you @USAA for helping me honor the military community & my grandfathers and uncles who served. The lessons I’ve learned from them will help me achieve success in the @NFL#SaluteToService#USAApartnerpic.twitter.com/8jFzVNJ9ug

Sewell is eager to find his routine on his next NFL team, advocating that whoever drafts him will gain a unique prospect bursting with energy and athleticism to “really do what the normal big man can’t do.” Add in a more sharply honed technique, particularly with hand placement, and Sewell believes he’s ready to answer a team’s questions. 

He’s already embraced the array of questions teams ask, including the often-offbeat queries the NFL evaluation process invites. One team, Sewell says, asked what he’d do if he was stuck somewhere with no phone, no internet access and $400-500. 

“If it’s $400-500, that’s pretty good for a one-way flight,” Sewell said. “So I’m probably going to find a store with internet access of some sort, get on the computer at probably like a library.

“Book me a one-way flight and I’m coming right back home to Mom.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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