CEDAR FALLS – When pro football scouts descended on UNI earlier this year, Trevor Penning was paying close attention.
Watching from inside the UNI-Dome, Penning saw former offensive line teammate Spencer Brown turn in a superb performance while being evaluated by National Football League teams.
The 6-foot-8, 310-pound Brown wowed NFL personnel during the session and it paid huge dividends when the Buffalo Bills selected him in the third round of the NFL draft.
“It was really motivating to see what Spencer did,” Penning said. “His pro day was insane – he completely raised his stock with the great numbers he put up. It was awesome to see.”
Now it’s Penning’s turn.
The massive 6-7, 335-pound offensive tackle is very much on the NFL’s radar heading into his fifth and final season at the University of Northern Iowa.
Entering his third year as a starter, Penning earned second-team preseason all-conference honors.
But the UNI senior’s upside projects considerably higher than that.
“Trevor Penning represents guys of the past and hopefully guys of the future,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “He’s a guy that came in here underdeveloped and very skinny. You have to see the before and after picture of a guy like that – and you only get the after photo if you work at it for four years.”
Penning certainly made the most of his time on the Northern Iowa campus.
“Trevor started working when he was a freshman – he didn’t wait until his senior year,” Farley said. “That’s a lot of years and a lot of time that he put into it. And now he’s getting the reward for all of the time he put in.
“He’s an excellent football player who really developed himself and worked hard to get where he’s at. Now he has one more year with us to keep showing what he can do.”
Penning knows he has a golden opportunity to play at the next level.
“I’ve been receiving good information and getting good feedback,” Penning said when asked about the NFL. “It’s been really cool to hear. It doesn’t matter what school you go to or what level you play at, there are opportunities out there to play at the highest level.”
Playing in the NFL has been a goal that Penning is determined to achieve.
“During my sophomore year, it was something I really started thinking was realistic for me,” he said. “I knew if I put some things together, I thought that I would have a good shot.”
Penning looks to be on track to follow in the footsteps of Brown, a player similar in stature and size to him.
“There is no question that Trevor’s been on the (NFL) radar for a while,” Farley said. “At UNI, you have to really earn your way onto an NFL list. Trevor not only has a chance to get there, but to stay there.”
One player who can attest to Penning’s abilities is Panther defensive tackle Jared Brinkman, the reigning conference defensive player of the year.
“Trevor is a guy that you definitely can’t take a play off against – if you do, he will put you on your butt,” Brinkman said. “He works extremely hard and he’s earned everything he’s accomplished in his time here. He’s a great player.”
Penning, a standout prep at Mason City Newman, also has accomplished plenty in the weight room. He did something Brown didn’t do during his superb college career. In late June, Penning squatted a school-record for offensive linemen of 625 pounds.
“I was feeling it that day – the record was 620 and I figured I might as well go for 625,” Penning said with a smile. “It was definitely really cool and fun to have all of my teammates there pumping me up and cheering me on. It really got my adrenaline going with everyone yelling for me to do it. It was awesome to do it and then have all of the guys going crazy when it happened.”
Penning and his UNI teammates will be playing in front of a full stadium of fans this fall for the first time since the 2019 season. Crowd sizes were limited at the UNI-Dome during the spring schedule because of the COVID pandemic.
“It’s going to be awesome to have all of the fans here again,” Penning said. “We’re so glad to have everything back to normal and have everyone back in here packing the Dome again. I can’t wait. We really missed having all the fans here cheering for us.”
Penning likely will have the majority of fans rooting against him and his teammates when UNI opens the season on the road Sept. 4 against a strong Iowa State team. The Cyclones are ranked No. 8 nationally at the NCAA Division I level.
Penning has vivid memories – positive and negative – from Northern Iowa’s meeting with Iowa State two years ago in Ames. ISU escaped with a triple-overtime win over UNI.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity, opening against Iowa State,” Penning said. “Two years ago, it was crazy. It was a fun game. It was my first college start, and it came in front of 60,000 fans. We had our chances the last time we played them and it was a tough loss. We’re looking forward to playing them again. I like being the underdog – it will be a great challenge for us.”
Penning started all 15 games as a sophomore in 2019 and remained in the lineup as a junior.
He is coming off a solid spring where the Panthers went 3-4 in an abbreviated season shortened by the COVID pandemic. Northern Iowa dropped four games by a total of 15 points.
UNI is focused on reversing its football fortunes while returning to a full schedule.
“It’s definitely great to be back out here after a short offseason,” Penning said. “I was itching to get back to playing right after the spring. I am ready to play ball again after a disappointing spring – it was upsetting what happened and it really motivates us to come back strong. We know we have made improvements that can carry us a long way this season.”
Northern Iowa is looking for more production on the offensive side of the ball, and Penning is well aware of that.
“We just need to get back to the fundamentals,” Penning said. “We can definitely improve our technique and we can get better at a lot of the little things. We have a lot of guys with experience. We just have to keep working hard and improve every day in practice.”
Penning plays alongside his brother, sophomore guard Jared Penning, on the O-line. Trevor is two years older than Jared.
“It’s been a great experience, being with Jared the past three years at UNI,” Trevor said. “We went to separate high schools and we’ve continued to grow closer during our time together in college. We live together with another offensive lineman in a house in Cedar Falls – it’s been great having that time together.”
The Pennings, like many people, had to be resourceful when COVID shut down training on the UNI campus last year.
“During COVID, my brother and I were back home in Clear Lake,” Trevor said. “When it all went down, we knew we still had to lift and train. We set up a weight room in our garage. We had to go shopping and pick up some dumb bells and some weights. I think that time at home really helped us bond. We really pushed each other.”
Penning is one of the leaders on a Northern Iowa team that is ranked No. 21 nationally in the FCS preseason poll. The Panthers are picked fifth in a loaded Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“That definitely motivates a lot of us,” Trevor Penning said. “Fifth is just not where we see ourselves finishing. We know we have the players who can reach the top.”