Oregon tackle Penei Sewell and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons admit that opting out wasn’t easy.
They were All-American selections in 2019. Sewell won the Outland Trophy, and Parsons was a finalist for the Butkus Award. They were considered top-10 picks for the 2021 NFL Draft before opting out of the 2020 college football season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just missed the edge you get from being able to dominate people in front of me,” Parsons told Sporting News. “Just being able to go attack people and go compete and challenge teammates and challenge myself. … It was just a really tough situation for everyone.”
Sewell and Parsons, however, are still among those opt-outs expected to be first-round picks at the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday in Cleveland. Both prospects are partnered with USAA, and they gave credit to their respective families and their military backgrounds for their draft preparation.
Sewell struggled to find a routine after the decision to opt out. It’s difficult to find a true substitute for game reps. He allowed just one sack in 1,376 snaps while playing tackle for Oregon from 2018 to 2019. He didn’t commit a penalty as a freshman.
Sewell, however, recalled a conversation from his childhood with his great-grandfather James Sewell, a U.S. Army veteran. One word stood out from that conversation.
“Discipline,” Sewell said. “Right then and there, that word popped up in my mind. I asked him what that meant, and when he told me that meaning, and it stuck.
“I forgot it at first when I went to Oregon,” he said. “Once I opted out and was on my own, it came back to me. Right then and there, that’s when I found I out who I am and found a routine as a professional.”
Sewell found a workout routine that was right for him, and the key in that preparation was staying true to the lessons learned from Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and offensive line coach Alex Mirabal. Sewell, who had two brothers who played college football, stayed with that disciplined workout approach and stayed close to his family through the whole process.
“What worked for me was to keep it as simple as possible — whatever that looked like on the field,” Sewell said. “Again, with me coming in and practicing with NFL people that have seen the game, I was kind of trying to impress them and almost got out of my game because I’m trying to do too much.
“What I found to believe is to always be true to who I am and stick to the knowledge that has been given to me and build on that.”
Parsons is the defensive counterpart who was considered one of the top defensive prospects heading into the season. He totaled 191 tackles and 18 tackles for loss in two seasons as a linebacker with the Nittany Lions.
Parsons also had a grandfather in the military, but that structure and routine stuck because of his uncles Marcel and Michael McDonald, who serve in the Army and Air Force, respectively. He worked out with ProActive Sports Performance in California before returning to Harrisburg, Pa., where he continues to work out ahead of the draft.
“They’re building something really amazing, and some of the things that I learned from my uncles and my grandfather were ‘honesty and respect,'” Parsons said. “Everything is earned and not given, and it’s about trying to come in with the right mindset every day.”
Parsons kept a calendar where he would check off goals during each day of the offseason. Like Sewell, he was pushed by his family to stick to that training regimen. He also dealt with missing game days when Penn State resumed its football season.
“I hate to lose and I love to win,” Parsons said. “Going out there and do what I do best and hitting people and making plays was something that I missed very much.”
Missing the season did not hurt either player’s draft stock. In Sporting News’ latest NFL mock draft, Sewell is projected to go No. 8 to the Carolina Panthers and Parsons is projected at No. 14 to the Minnesota Vikings. Sewell figures to be a franchise tackle and Parsons is part of that wave of next-gen linebackers who can cover the field from sideline to sideline.
Both used those lessons off the field to maintain that draft status.
Sewell was part of the Pac-12’s player movement that called for more benefits for student-athletes, and he plans to stay active in pushing for those changes in college football.
“I’ve learned and really grown so much as an individual,” he said. “I was part of that movement, and I wanted to show — not just to my teammates but the other sports around me that I’m supporting them, and I want to be there for them.”
Parsons, meanwhile, stayed true to that military-like schedule to accomplish his daily goals. It was something instilled at an early age.
“I would say I can’t live without structure and routine,” he said. “It’s in my daily schedule. I have to have something mapped out for me. I have to have a plan every day. I was raised to have a plan and always know what you are doing with that plan.”
That plan didn’t change with opting out. It will be interesting to see how that trend continues in future seasons knowing that Sewell and Parsons, along with others such as LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, sat out but still should be top-10 picks.
In their cases, the rewards outnumbered the risks.
It will be worth the wait on Thursday.
USAA and the NFL created the “Salute to Service” platform to authentically honor and appreciate the military, veterans and their families. Sewell and Parsons told their stories ahead of the NFL Draft through USAA. “USAA does an amazing job, and I’m so happy to be a part of this and what they represent for the people who protect this country,” Parsons said.