Northern Iowa left tackle Trevor Penning has come a long way in the five years since he graduated from Newman Catholic High School in Mason City, Iowa.
He entered the UNI program skinny and underdeveloped but has gained more close to 100 pounds of weight in school, including a lot of muscle.
He's set school weightlifting records and attracted NFL scouts from virtually every club.
He's even harnessed his dunking ability, even if football is Penning's first love and likely future profession.
But it hasn't been long enough for the former high school standout to forget what Iowa State — UNI's opponent in Saturday's season opening — thought of him coming out as a recruit just over an hour up the road from Ames.
"This is a ‘chip on the shoulder’ game for me," Penning told Yahoo Sports recently. "(Iowa State) didn’t recruit me. They didn’t want me out of high school. I don’t think I ever talked to them once, in fact. I just felt a little ignored, left behind, whatever you want to say.
"Hopefully I am able to show them they made a mistake."
This is a Cyclones team ranked in the top 10 that Penning and his Panthers teammates are facing. It's the biggest game by far on UNI's schedule and it's a clear showcase game for Penning, a possible top-50 selection in the 2022 NFL draft.
And it's not just a great opponent. Penning figures to lock horns more than once with Cyclones defensive end Will McDonald IV, a strong NFL prospect himself who tied for the FBS lead in sacks in 2020 with 10.5.
"Playing against top competition (like McDonald), against a great Big 12 team, that’s great exposure for me," Penning said. "I just want to see what I can do against great players and one of those types of teams."
Setting the school squat record and receiving praise from NFL scouts
The 6-foot-7, 335-pound Penning has a chance to make a run at the first round next spring. His former teammate, Spencer Brown, landed in Round 3 (93rd overall), despite FCS football being canceled last fall. Brown was able to achieve that thanks to a strong Senior Bowl week and a terrific pro day.
Penning can't wait to have his opportunities to match Brown's work at both of those venues, along with the NFL scouting combine. But first, there's a season to be played.
"I’ve got time to worry about that," Penning said.
NFL scouts already know about Penning's athleticism. A member of Bruce Feldman's 2022 college football "Freaks List," Penning doesn't move quite as well as Brown did. But he's also at least 20 pounds heavier than Brown, boasts an 83 1/2-inch wingspan and broke the school's squat record with two reps at 625 pounds this spring.
The record fell as something of a lark, when Penning though, what the heck? and just gave it a crack.
"I think after my redshirt freshman year testing, after I’d spent the whole year lifting, my max squat was like 405," Penning said with a chortle. "I was maybe (weighing) 280 pounds then. It took a lot of hard work to get to that point."
The UNI players had just finished eight short sets of heavy back squats. Penning thinks he'd only maxed out at 585 or maybe 605 pounds. Sometime during that eighth set, he hatched his plan.
"I kind of had it in the back of my head, I wanted to just try (going for the school record)," he said. "I was just like, screw it. It was like our ninth set of the day or whatever for our program that day, and I just went up to my strength coach (Jed Smith) and said, ‘Can I just try this?’
"He said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine,’ and it just sort of happened."
"That was definitely a good day," Penning added.
Not bad, considering that UNI's facility had been closed and students sent home last fall because of COVID-19. In addition, most local gyms were closed for a period of time. Penning and his younger brother, Jared, had to act quickly to get their home gym in order. That meant buying all their own weights, plates and racks and setting up shop in the garage.
One lifted while the other spotted; then they'd switch. It worked out just fine. Trevor has built himself into a legitimate NFL prospect, and Jared hopes to fill the one open starting job on the offensive line: right next to his brother at left guard.
Penning played spring ball this year, running his streak of starts at left tackle to 18 games. He also started the 2019 season opener at right guard against the Cyclones and allowed only one pressure on 51 pass-block snaps that game, a 29-26 overtime thriller that Iowa State pulled out in the end.
Penning projects to tackle in the NFL (and has played snaps on the right side), although he also could be tried at guard because of his power and girth. He earned strong grades for his spring performance, even while UNI finished a disappointing 3-4 (with the four losses by a combined 15 points), and says he's ready to go this fall despite the short turnaround.
"My body is ready," he said, "and so is my mind."
One major scouting service gave Penning a late second-round grade entering the 2021 fall season. That's about the range of feedback Penning has received so far, everything from Round 3 to late Round 1 and in between.
The last FCS offensive lineman to crack Round 1 was Alabama State's Tytus Howard (23rd overall) in 2019. It wouldn't be stunning to see Penning end up there with a strong season, especially if he stands out at the Senior Bowl and during the rest of the pre-draft cycle.
"It’s good to hear, but it can all be gone if I don’t continue working and playing hard," Penning said by phone following practice. "I guess it’s just good to know that people are watching."
And they'll be watching extra closely during Saturday's showcase game.
Oh yeah, Trevor Penning can dunk, too
Some scouts may even have seen his windmill dunks on Youtube. He might not be quite the supple athlete Brown was, but Penning's ups give hope for big future pro-day and combine workouts.
He's been dunking since high school, Penning said, but those were often "one-hand, one-foot, rim-grazer dunks." Now Penning adds the windmill for a little more flash — and a lot of explosive athleticism.
Penning's footwork for a big man is exceptional. He's just as able to cut off speed rushers pass blocking as he is able to wash defenders down the line on run plays. Penning plays with a wide base and generates good power, and his rare length allows him to prevent defenders from getting into his frame. His nasty demeanor on the field belies his quiet and easy-going personality off of it.
On the downside, Penning has been very penalty-prone (18 flags in his past 19 games) and will lunge and lean — a problem for some bigger blockers — on occasion. To hear Penning talk about his game, however, you'd think he was projected to be undrafted.
"I've gotten better in camp," he said, "but I know I have a long way to go. The work's just started."
That process begins Saturday. His matchup with McDonald and the Cyclones won't be the only tape evaluators watch on Penning, but the small-school stigma might never leave before the draft.
"I know I have to show up and we have to show up as a team," Penning said. "I feel like there's a lot riding on this game for us to show we belong."