A few months ago, Trevor Penning shared a laugh with his Northern Iowa teammate who found some high school game tape and spotted Penning. Except it wasn’t a piece of film showing him dominating the competition or standing out like a future Division 1 All-American offensive lineman. It was Penning getting blown off of the line of scrimmage as a defensive end.
It was humorous to watch, but also a stark realization for Penning on how far he has come.
“Oh my god, that’s not even me anymore. That’s scary to look at,” Penning recalls thinking.
Then, Penning was a 6-foot-4, 210-pound high school junior who figured he had the height and frame to be a 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.
It’s no wonder he barely recognizes himself watching HS film. But Penning’s path to the NFL is one many FCS offensive linemen travel.
From Clear Lake, Iowa, and playing ball at Newman Catholic High School (the lowest level of 11-man football in the state), Penning was a late developer physically. During a key recruiting year as a junior in high school, he was just a skinny defensive end. The in-state FBS programs Iowa and Iowa State never reached out, even as he grew a couple of more inches into his senior season and into an offensive lineman’s frame.
“I improved a ton going from my junior to senior year,” Penning told HERO Sports last week. “After my senior year was when I started getting offers, but I only really had two D1 offers out of high school and it was Northern Iowa and South Dakota, plus a few D2 and D3 offers. I never talked to Iowa or Iowa State. I never got a message or anything.”
UNI’s recent track record of developing offensive linemen made Cedar Falls a perfect landing spot for Penning, though. Spencer Brown, also an Iowa native, was one year older than Penning and went from a 6-foot-8, 238-pound freshman to a 6-foot-9, 321-pound senior who then got selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. While not as drastic as Brown, Penning also saw a body transformation in college. He grew another two inches since arriving on campus and gained 32 pounds.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2019, Penning climbed the depth chart and started all 15 games for the 10-5 Panthers. He did not receive any postseason award recognition. The FCS played its next full season in the spring of 2021 due to COVID. Penning showed noticeable improvements, earning All-MVFC honorable mention honors.
But NFL scouts and draft analysts saw something more than an FCS All-Conference honorable mention player. They took notice of Penning’s size, pure power in his run blocking, and his light feet in pass protection.
His draft stock quickly skyrocketed between the spring and fall 2021 seasons. The more film analysts watched, the more they praised. “First-rounder” became a norm for NFL Draft analysts to say when breaking down Penning.
What ensued was a dominant senior season, starting with an Iowa State team that didn’t recruit him. UNI gave the No. 7-ranked Cyclones a battle before losing 16-10. Draft experts were all over the film.
“My first year starting, I didn’t have the confidence level as I did in the spring and fall season,” Penning said. “My technique wasn’t great. I thought I was a pretty good run-blocker as a redshirt sophomore. But pass pro was definitely not what I really wanted it to be then. That’s what I was really focusing on going into that spring season. I put in a ton of time into working on the craft 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 best FCS offensive player. The draft buzz continued to grow throughout his senior season.
“I know at first, it was kind of mind-blowing. It was like, ‘Whoa, first round? That’s insane. Like, what?’” Penning said. “But it’s definitely sinking in by now. I just try to keep improving every day and keep my name in that conversation. Everyone wants that spot, so you have to keep working hard to keep that spot.”
He received the first official invite to the Senior Bowl in early November, the top all-star game for NFL prospects that is held Feb. 1-5. Draft Scout projects Penning as a first-rounder and ranks him the No. 3 offensive tackle in the draft and the No. 29 overall prospect. ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Penning going No. 25 overall to Cincinnati in his mock draft.
“The 6-foot-7 Penning towered over defenders at the FCS level, and he was rarely challenged,” Kiper wrote. “He makes things look easy. Yes, it’s a big leap to the NFL, but I think he has the traits to be an early starter. If Cincinnati wants to keep 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams on the left side, Penning could easily slot in at right tackle, where free-agent-to-be Riley Reiff played for most of 2021.”
Penning has been training since December at the Sports Academy at the Star in Frisco, Texas, not far from where the FCS championship game is played. UNI’s season ended in the first round of the playoffs. He knows things are about to pick up in a crazy manner as the NFL Draft process gets fully underway at the Senior Bowl. A lot of workouts and interviews will follow.
FCS prospects always face the “level of competition” question, although 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 the chance to prove he is as powerful and athletic as he looks on tape against FCS opponents.
“The main thing is showing I belong,” Penning said. “I know in my heart and a lot of people’s feelings toward me, I know a lot of people think I do belong. But going into the Senior Bowl and the Combine, I want to show that I not only belong, but I can be dominant. Doing the same kind of stuff I was doing at Northern Iowa at the Senior Bowl. And run the times I know I’m capable of running at the Combine and showing my athleticism and my technique in football drills.”
From a skinny high schooler to a D1 offensive lineman. From a raw FCS lineman to an All-American and NFL prospect. Penning has risen above expectations his whole football career. Now he looks to meet sky-high expectations and prove he is the first-round talent many believe him to be.