CEDAR FALLS — Anger spewed from Trevor Penning as he approached the Northern Iowa sideline, demanding to know why his day was done. Listening to logic certainly wasn’t a priority.
“He comes off all mad, hitting his helmet,” UNI coach Mark Farley recalled with a chuckle. “Trevor walked by and I thought, ‘Well I’ll let him calm down for a minute.’
“Because when he gets mad…he’s mad.”
Oh, UNI was up 41-3.
Late in the fourth quarter too.
Not usually a time when likely first-round NFL Draft picks are still plowing away, operating with the same football intensity showcased on the opening snap. Relentless is the only way Penning knows how to perform. And it’s this approach that’s ignited Penning’s five-year rapid rise from high school unknown to one of the nation’s fiercest offensive tackles.
Another monumental chapter in Penning’s football journey should arrive Thursday, when the former UNI standout is likely to become the highest Panther picked in the program’s illustrious history. Projections have varied a bit on Penning’s actual landing spot, but the general consensus is he’ll be off the board well before the first round concludes.
And if that happens, it will be a historic moment with Penning becoming the first UNI Panther selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
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There’s no exact blueprint for reaching the doorstep of NFL stardom, no one route that brings players face-to-face with their professional football dreams. Penning’s surge to this magic moment didn’t include recruiting fanfare, a grand college stage or organic preparation for the massive spotlight growing by the day.
This rugged journey offered up so much more.
Seven-mile move changes everything for Penning
One’s adolescent years are often spent shuffling through potential passions until something finally sticks. Penning was no different in that regard.
It wasn’t until an eighth grade move to the Newman Catholic school system that football began to rise above the rest. It may not have seemed like much, shifting from Clear Lake to Mason City’s top Catholic institution — a move that only covers about seven miles — but Teresa Penning instantly saw how much good it did for her eldest son.
“Moving Trevor to Newman was the best thing ever,” said Teresa, a mother of three. “He felt like a nobody here in Clear Lake. They’d stick him on the ‘B’ team and not even give him a chance. He’d be down in the dumps and I’d be like, ‘You just can’ t quit.'”
Once inside the Knights program led by head coach Rich McCardle, Penning’s eyes widened at the possibility of making college football a reality. His robust frame for a prep athlete offered plenty of promise with the right strength and conditioning program, even if it was the Division II or junior college route. Pair the football potential with the athleticism shown in basketball and track, and Penning began to believe someone would eventually want his services.
There was just one problem: his grades.
Until that point, Penning wasn’t terribly interested in school. It wasn’t a priority until his grades were tied to becoming eligible for a college football opportunity.
“He was one of those, ‘Oh I’m not going to college,'” Teresa recalled. “‘I’m just going to go farm with grandpa.'”
The correction came just in time.
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With his high school GPA up nearly two full points by the time he departed Newman Catholic, Penning had officially morphed into a vintage UNI recruiting piece—similar to the countless other overlooked in-state prospects who’ve buoyed Farley’s program for two decades.
“UNI came in and said, ‘If this kid goes to JUCO, he’ll be in the Big Ten and we’ll never have a chance at him again,'” McCardle recalled. “‘We want him to come to UNI. We want him eligible and we’re going to make that happen.'”
It didn’t matter that Iowa State barely gave Penning a look. It didn’t matter that Iowa was not seriously interested. Penning had a believer in Farley, even if both knew plenty of improvement still had to be made. His journey to Cedar Falls gave Penning an unwavering belief that more success was ahead.
Struggles in Cedar Falls: ‘Did we waste a scholarship on this dude?’
For every undervalued recruit who blossoms into an FCS star, dozens more produce college careers that validate the Power Five skepticism. A redshirt here — couple of special teams seasons there — and suddenly, four-plus years have flown by without any major impact.
Penning’s early Cedar Falls years delivered few snaps and fewer highlights.
Ryan Clanton chuckles when reminiscing on his first Penning impression. UNI’s offensive line coach joined Farley’s staff during the 2018 spring, not long after Penning finished redshirting as a true freshman. The ensuing fall featured much of the same, as Penning appeared in just four game as a reserve offensive lineman.
Hardly the makings of an NFL-bound future.
“He was falling down a lot,” Clanton said. “But he at least was always falling forward, which was a good thing. You could tell he had a lot of fight to him. He just didn’t have a lot of strength.”
Penning’s younger brother, Jared, had a less diplomatic assessment.
“I’ve heard stories about him being the worst player here — unathletic, whatever,” said Jared, now also a UNI offensive lineman. “They were seriously considering, ‘Did we waste a scholarship on this dude?’ But he just kept working every single day.”
It’s here where Penning’s physical transformation hits another gear. No more talks about the strength and nastiness Penning could possess with his 6-foot-6 frame. As was the case with his high school grades, the action to advance further was as straightforward as could be. It was simply on Penning to deliver the results.
A giant portion of that four-quarter tenacity came out to play during that 2019 offseason. It helped too that Penning’s younger brother arrived at UNI ahead of the 2019 campaign, he too a small-school offensive lineman hunting big things in Cedar Falls. The brotherly love that often blends competition with adoration had no small part in Penning’s upperclassman rise.
When UNI’s 2019 roster was released, Penning’s weight had jumped from 289 pounds the year before to a robust 321 pounds in a matter of months. He started all 15 games that season as a redshirt sophomore — helping guide the Panthers to a near overtime stunner over Iowa State and ultimately, the program’s first FCS quarterfinal playoff appearance since 2015.
As Penning found his sweet spot that season, the national buzz regarding UNI’s up-front unit centered on his teammate one spot over. It was during 2019 and into 2020 that Spencer Brown began to pick up professional steam, eventually going to the Buffalo Bills in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. That made him just the sixth Panther ever to be picked in the third round or earlier.
A funny thing happened, though.
When teams dug into evaluating Brown, they couldn’t stop noticing Penning. The size, the strength, the never-ending motor that had foes begging for the final whistle. After navigating through the pandemic with a home-built gym that required Penning and his brother to scour all of Iowa’s corners for weightlifting equipment — not to mention the funky 2021 spring season that threw everyone off — Penning suddenly had the table set for a professional career that once seemed unfathomable.
“You look back and see what’s happened in these last five years — how he’s worked and developed himself to come out where he’s at right now,” Farley said, “you just feel so good for him and the people who’ve guided him through that.”
How high could Penning go in NFL Draft: ‘A chance to get into the top 10’
Anticipation for this week only soared as Penning marched through a dominating 2021 season. Awards and accolades came in, left and right. Among the most eye-opening was Penning’s nomination for the Walter Payton Award, which is given annually to the best offensive player in the FCS. Penning was the only lineman among the nominees. A 6-6 season that included a last-gasp playoff berth did little to derail Penning’s hype train.
There were challenging moments, sure. Like before the season even began, when Penning spent a large chunk of last summer wondering if he needed to transfer to a place with more eyes on it. Teresa said Notre Dame had reached out to McCardle to see if Penning was interested in a move. He gave it serious thought, flip-flopping often on what was the right decision, before ultimately opting to dance with who brought him here.
Safe to say it was the correct call.
“This guy is big, powerful, can play with leverage,” NFL Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said recently. “I absolutely think I think he has a chance to get into the top 10. You can just see how athletic and how easy he moves for such a big man.”
Chatter has intensified over the last three months, which has seen Penning deliver quality showings at the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine and the endless interviews in between. His athleticism was on display at the Combine in Indianapolis earlier this year, where Penning tied for the second-fastest 40-yard dash time among offensive linemen (4.89 seconds) in a year where the big guys up front ran faster than ever. Penning was one of 12 offensive linemen to post 40 times under five seconds, the most at the Combine since at least 2003.
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Skepticism lingers if Penning can survive in the NFL after an FCS career, or if he’s too intense to be disciplined. The NFL microscope is bound to increase the higher Penning goes in the NFL Draft this week.
That’s OK with this big fella.
Few things have been simple on this incredible football journey. Penning isn’t about to start changing now.
“I just want to go out there,” Penning said, “and play my game.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.