The first play of Oregon's 2019 season set the tone.
With the ball placed at the 25-yard line and Auburn's talented defense lined up across from them, the Ducks came out in a 2x2 set. Just before the snap, slot receiver Jaylon Redd came in short motion before catching a quick screen and turning upfield for an 11-yard gain which moved the sticks.
At first glance, the play seemed to be classic Oregon football: spreading the full width of the field and distributing the ball to shifty playmakers in space. But for Auburn nickelback Christian Tutt, the play had a very different feel.
After quickly diagnosing the screen, Tutt (#6) set up to maintain leverage on the ballcarrier in hopes of making a tackle for a short gain. But just as he seemed to line up Redd for the stop, the 190 lb slot corner was run over by a freight train wearing #58.
The Tigers trotted out a number of all-conference linemen of their own, such as defensive end Marlon Davidson (#3), a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, and SEC defensive player of the year Derrick Brown (#5), who was selected 7th in last month's draft by the Carolina Panthers. But on that afternoon in AT&T Stadium, it was the Ducks who had the best big man on the field.
Though nothing is set in stone these days, it certainly appears as though the Oregon football program will still embark on another prominent out-of-conference matchup this fall, this time welcoming Ohio State to Autzen stadium. Though questions remain about how many fans may be in attendance, one thing we can count on is the Ducks once again lining up with the game's best lineman.
Even with Chase Young or a Bosa brother, Sewell would offer a stiff challenge to the Buckeye pass rush, as the junior-to-be registered the best season ever graded for an offensive tackle since Pro Football Focus began their evaluations. With Sewell holding down the left side, the Ducks had the best offensive line in the country last fall, completing a transformation their head coach, Mario Cristobal, had foreseen since taking over after the 2017 season.
Cristobal, himself an accomplished offensive lineman at the University of Miami during its heyday in the 90s, looked to create a program that overpowered opponents, much like his alma mater had or the University of Alabama did so often when he was the offensive line coach from 2013-2016. Upon taking the Oregon job, Cristobal placed Sewell's recruitment as his top priority, making him the foundation of the program in many ways.
Like the Buckeyes, the Ducks heavily favor zone-blocking schemes, though they operate most often from the pistol, creating slightly different paths for the running backs. On wide zone (or stretch) plays, the back reads the end man who is often blocked by the tackle, looking to either bounce outside or cut upfield.
When running to Sewell's side, that choice is made much easier as he was often driving opponents completely out of the play...
...even when those opponents were the aforementioned Brown and his 326 lb frame.
The Oregon passing game still offers some elements of finesse, as they regularly employed RPOs to keep opponents from keying on the run. But with a strong-armed quarterback in Justin Herbert, they also called for a heavy dose of downfield, play-action passes.
Though Oregon called for fewer vertical pass sets than are required at the next level, Sewell looked comfortable when protecting the quarterback's blindside. Against Cal's Cameron Goode, a speed rushing OLB who was third in the conference with 9.5 sacks, Sewell showed plenty of athleticism by moving his feet to stay in front of the defender and maintaining good balance without lunging.
On the rare occasions when Sewell was beaten off the line, his power made up for it. As Washington's Joe Tryon (who had 8 sacks last fall) initially gets Sewell on his heels with the long-arm technique so beloved by Larry Johnson Sr and his troops, the massive offensive tackle uses the strength of his lower body to reset and get back underneath, keeping Herbert clean in the pocket.
But along with a rare combination of athleticism capable of producing a swim move better than most opponents (see the screen pass at the top) and the power to move SEC defensive linemen with ease, Sewell also plays with an edge. He 'looks for work' as well as anyone in the country, keeping his eyes open and helping teammates whenever his hands are empty, always playing with a little bit of extra nastiness until the whistle.
Though Ohio State won't be bringing a proven pass rusher to the Pacific coast to take on Sewell mano-a-mano, the Buckeyes will likely have more depth overall along the trenches. Both programs lost a wealth of talent in the recent NFL Draft, but the Ducks must replace the other four starters along the offensive line while OSU ends Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and Tyler Friday have all seen significant playing time to this point in their careers.
In fact, many teams began pulling a 'reverse Chase Young' on Sewell, lining up their best rushers along the right side of the offensive line, leaving him one-on-one with the least talented member of the pass rush and hoping to create pressure the other way, a move the Buckeyes will likely emulate. There are downsides to this plan as well, though, as the Ducks are happy to let Sewell act as a road-grader in the running game, avoiding clear passing situations as much as possible.
The chess match between the two coaching staffs will be fun to watch no matter what, but one thing remains clear: if 58 in green and yellow is coming your way, you're in for some trouble. Just ask Auburn's Christian Tutt.