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Were there do-over NFL drafts, Northern Iowa would have had several first-round picks in the league over the years rather than none.
Former UNI running back David Johnson led the NFL in all-purpose yards and touchdowns in 2016. He was a third-round pick.
Linebacker Bryce Paup, a current UNI assistant coach, was a sixth-round draftee in 1990. Five years later, he had 17.5 sacks and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Quarterback Kurt Warner was a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and two-time NFL MVP. He was undrafted out of UNI.
The earliest a Panther has been drafted was defensive tackle James Jones, a second-rounder and the 57th pick of the 1991 draft.
“That’s crazy, seeing how good the players are that we’ve had,” said UNI offensive tackle Trevor Penning, a consensus first-rounder in NFL mock drafts and in the top 20 picks of most.
“I kind of always thought my ultimate goal was to play in the league. I didn’t really think about how high (he could be drafted), I just wanted to get there somehow, some way.”
Penning will hold a draft-night party at a restaurant in his Clear Lake hometown Thursday. He went to UNI in 2017 as a lean tight end/defensive end from Mason City Newman Catholic High.
No major-college program gave him a serious look. Asked if he had a chip on his shoulder, Penning replied “I 100 percent do. I think all FCS players do. We were never supposed to be anything special.
“When we played Iowa State (a 16-10 Cyclones win last Sept. 4), I looked at the sideline at those guys. They did not want me whatsoever. They didn’t even know I exist, probably. I wanted to make sure they knew who I was after the game.”
Today, NFL people are keenly aware of Penning. At 6-foot-7, 325 pounds, he ran a 4.89 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. For his size, strength and athleticism, his mauling and meanness coming off the line of scrimmage are touted as much as anything.
“I’m looking to terrorize the defense off the ball,” Penning said.
“I’m going to be a very physical player, but at the same time I’m a very athletic player. I think the combination I have is something all great NFL players have.”
“From an offensive line perspective, we just ask guys to be themselves,” UNI offensive line coach Ryan Clanton said, “but be physical and relentless in their efforts and blocking. Just be a dog. We’re trying to compete with the best of the best, not just in our league or the FCS.”
Clanton and Penning rave about the work done with players by UNI strength and conditioning coach Jed Smith in helping mold flexible and explosive offensive linemen.
“I tell you what, compared to other places we’re strong as (bleep),” Penning said.
Something’s working in developing blockers at the school, too. Clanton won’t detail it, calling it “the secret stuff.” Many NFL and major-college coaches have called him for knowledge in the last couple years, having seen Penning’s development. Spencer Brown’s, too.
Brown played 8-man football as a prep in Lenox, Iowa. He was a third-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills last year, and became a starter in October.
NFL scouts studied Brown when he was at UNI and couldn’t help but also notice fellow tackle Penning.
“He dedicated his life to being in the weight room and with me in the film room,” Clanton said, “and just played the game the way we asked him to play.”
Penning was the only offensive lineman who was a 2021 finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS.
Football, Penning said, “is everything to me.”
“I’m being 100 percent honest when I say he’s going to give 1,000 percent every day,” Clanton said.
Clanton, who played for Oregon’s offensive line in 2011, said he bought a lot of Bills jerseys, shirts, photos and more last year because of Brown. He’ll get out his credit card for Penning’s team, too.
“I remember having conversations with both of them that were like ‘Hey, you’re going to be in the NFL, man,’ and they were almost like ‘No way.’ I’m like ‘Dude, I’ve seen, I’ve played with guys you’re going to surpass if you continue on this track.’
“To see Trevor get to that highest level from being relatively unrecruited and unknown is a once-in-a-generation type thing happening before our eyes. Which is pretty cool.”
“I’m going to work my tail off,” Penning said. “I want to reach my ultimate goal of being the best player I can be. I’m going to love being there.”
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