INDIANAPOLIS — Northern Iowa lineman Trevor Penning’s tradition of watching horror movies before games didn’t come out of a need to pump himself up before taking the field. Instead, it was because of the calendar.
In 2019, the Panthers’ schedule had them bus to Illinois State on Nov. 1, which meant Penning and his teammates had to stay in on Halloween. With an evening at home on his schedule, Penning decided to watch a horror movie and opted for “Saw”.
He liked it so much that when his teammates spotted him on the bus the next day, he was well prepared for the ride from Cedar Falls to Normal.
“It’s a five-hour bus ride, so I had to think of something to do,” Penning said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got an idea, I’m going to watch ‘Saw II’ and download ‘Saw III’!
“Within 10 minutes of that trip, our center was sitting right behind me looking over my shoulder and saw some murder scene going on. He’s like, ‘What are you watching?’ and I’m like, ‘Saw.’ He’s like, ‘What is wrong with you?’”
Nobody’s asking that question of Penning on the football field, as his penchant for creating holes has become as well-known as his love for horror films. Given the mean streak he played with at Northern Iowa, his affinity for gory films doesn’t seem that surprising — until it’s juxtaposed with his gregarious nature off the field.
“Off the field, I’m just trying to be a nice guy; I have no reason to be angry,” Penning said. “But on the field, I think that’s just a switch you’ve got to have, especially to play offensive line.
“Playing very nasty is how I believe O-line is meant to be played. You want to make that guy across from you hate to go against you. You want to see the fear in his eyes.”
More often than not, Penning gets that result. He’s always had great size as far as height goes, but only recently has he added the bulk and strength to his frame that took him from borderline college prospect to potential first-round NFL selection.
For that, he credits Northern Iowa strength coach Jed Smith, whose weight program helped take him from a self-described twig out of high school to a player that has several NFL teams’ attention.
“We’re one of the strongest teams in the country,” Penning said. “We’re moving weight in there every day, and crazy numbers are going on in there. That’s what (UNI coach) Mark Farley and Jed Smith believe make a great football team, and being the strongest team out there most times we played helped us a ton.”
Farley and Smith’s work should help Penning again in the example of former UNI and current Buffalo Bills right tackle Spencer Brown, who became the Bills’ starter in October of last year and has served as Penning’s mentor in the Combine process.
“Spencer has been big for me,” Penning said. “Listening to a guy who was here a year ago, he knows what’s going on and what to expect. Hearing him and how the process went for him has been great; he’s been really good to me.
“He’s given me a lot of advice to be ready to work. From now until the end of your rookie year, you’ve got a lot of hours going in and you’ve got to put in and work.
With Brown providing a tangible example of a player going from Northern Iowa to winning an NFL job, Penning will likely see higher expectations in his rookie campaign. That’s especially true should he land in the first round, where most mock drafts have him.
Should he land in Pittsburgh, either at No. 20 or after making a trade, that would break a coincidental trend for the team. The Steelers haven’t taken an FCS player since drafting Javon Hargrave from South Carolina State in 2016, and their last first-round choice from the FCS ranks was tackle Jamain Stephens of North Carolina A&T in 1996.
Regardless of where he lands, Penning plans to be ready for his opportunity to come and bring his on-field mean streak with him.
“No matter what, I’m going to prepare like I’m the starting tackle for the NFL team I go to. I’m going to prepare the same way I did in college, to be the best I can be.”