A few months ago, Trevor Penning shared a laugh with his Northern Iowa teammate who found a high school play tape and spotted Penning. Except it wasn’t a piece of film showing him dominating the competition or breaking out as a future Division 1 All-American offensive lineman. It was Penning who was kicked out of the line of scrimmage. as a defensive end.
It was fun to watch, but also a stark realization for Penning of how far he had come.
“Oh my god, it’s not even me anymore. It’s scary to watch,” Penning recalled.
Next, Penning was a 6-foot-4, 210-pound high school student who thought he had the size and frame to be DE in college. Now Penning is 6-foot-7.5, over 320 pounds, and one of the top offensive tackles in the 2022 NFL Draft.
No wonder he barely recognizes himself watching an HS movie. But Penning’s path to the NFL is one that many FCS offensive linemen travel.
A native of Clear Lake, Iowa, and playing ball at Newman Catholic High School (the lowest level in 11-player football in the state), Penning was physically a late developer. During a key recruiting year as a junior in high school, he was just a skinny defensive end. The FBS programs in the state, Iowa and Iowa State, never reached out, even though he grew a few inches taller in his senior season and as part of an offensive lineman.
“I improved a ton going from my junior to senior year,” Penning told HERO Sports last week. “After my senior year I started getting offers but I really only had two D1 offers out of high school and that was Northern Iowa and South Dakota plus a few D2 offers and D3. I never spoke to Iowa or Iowa State. I never received a message or anything.
However, UNI’s recent track record of developing attacking linemen has made Cedar Falls a perfect landing spot for Penning. Spencer Brown, also from Iowa, was a year older than Penning and went from a 6-foot-8, 238-pound freshman to a 6-foot-9, 321-pound senior who was later selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. While not as radical as Brown, Penning also saw a body transformation in college. He has grown another two inches since arriving on campus and gained 32 pounds.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2019, Penning moved up the depth chart and started all 15 games for the 10-5 Panthers. He received no post-season award recognition. FCS played its next full season in the spring of 2021 due to COVID. Penning showed noticeable improvements, earning All-MVFC honorable mentions.
But NFL draft scouts and analysts saw something more than an FCS All-Conference honorable mention player. They noticed Penning’s size, pure power in his run blocking and light footing in pass protection.
His draft stock quickly skyrocketed between the spring and fall 2021 seasons. The more movie analysts watched, the more they rented. “First round” has become a standard for NFL Draft analysts when breaking down Penning.
What followed was a dominant senior season, starting with an Iowa State team that didn’t draft him. UNI gave the No.7 ranked Cyclones a battle before losing 16-10. Draft experts were all over the movie.
“My freshman year starting, I didn’t have the level of confidence like I had in the spring and fall,” Penning said. “My technique was not excellent. I thought I was a pretty good run blocker in sophomore year in a redshirt. But the pro pass was definitely not what I really wanted it to be at the time. That’s what I was really focusing on at the start of this spring season. I spent a ton of time working on the art of pass blocking.
Penning finished 2021 as a unanimous FCS All-American and was named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS’ top offensive player. The draft hubbub continued to grow throughout his senior season.
“I know at first it was kind of mind blowing. It was like, ‘Whoa, first round? This is crazy. Like, what?'” Penning said. to sink now. I’m just trying to keep getting better every day and keep my name in this conversation. Everybody wants this spot, so you have to keep working hard to keep this spot.
He received the first official invitation to the Senior Bowl in early November, the top all-star game for NFL prospects which runs Feb. 1-5. Draft Scout projects Penning as a first-rounder and ranks him No. 3 in offensive tackle in the draft and No. 29 in overall prospect. ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Penning moving up to 25th overall in Cincinnati in his false draft.
“The 6-foot-7 Penning dominated defenders at FCS level, and he was rarely challenged,” Kiper wrote. “He makes things easy. Yes, it’s a big step towards the NFL, but I think he has the qualities to be a rookie. If Cincinnati wants to keep 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams on the left side, Penning could easily slot in at right tackle, where future free agent Riley Reiff has played for most of 2021.”
Penning has been training since December at the Star’s Sports Academy in Frisco, Texas, not far from where the FCS championship game is being played. UNI’s season ended in the first round of the playoffs. He knows things are about to pick up in a wild way as the NFL Draft process gets fully underway in the Senior Bowl. Many training sessions and interviews will follow.
FCS prospects still struggle with the question of “level of competition,” though Penning has tape against P5 Iowa State and the Missouri Valley Football Conference arguably has stronger defenses than some G5 conferences. The Senior Bowl is a chance to show he can consistently win against pro-level defensive linemen. And testing is your chance to prove he’s as powerful and athletic as he looks on tape against FCS opponents.
“The main thing is to show that I belong,” Penning said. “I know in my heart and the feelings of many people towards me, I know that many people think that I belong. But going into the Senior Bowl and the Combine, I want to show that not only do I belong, but I can be dominant. Doing the same kind of stuff I was doing in Northern Iowa in the Senior Bowl. And running the times I know I’m able to run at the Combine and show off my athleticism and technique in football drills.
From a skinny high schooler to a D1 offensive lineman. From an FCS raw lineman to an All-American and NFL prospect. Penning has exceeded expectations throughout his football career. Now he’s looking to live up to the highest expectations and prove he’s the first-round talent many think he is.