Draft day. It's a day Trevor Penning has dreamed of and worked for his entire life.
Now, the day is here.
The 2022 NFL Draft begins at 7 p.m. Thursday with the first round. Penning, a native of Clear Lake and graduate of Newman Catholic, is widely projected by most analysts to be selected in the first round. Should that happen, the offensive tackle would become the highest drafted football player in the history of the University of Northern Iowa.
Brad Meester is currently the highest-drafted Panther of all time, having been selected with the 29th pick of the second round in the 2000 NFL Draft. The possibility of Penning going in the first round brought a smile to the face of UNI head coach Mark Farley.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s awesome for Trevor and his family, it’s awesome for our program. To have a potential first round draft pick and for Mason City Newman (Catholic) to have a first round draft pick (is awesome). There’s a lot of program firsts and first things happening in the state of Iowa. For an under-recruited guy to now potentially be a first round pick I think is just great for the state of Iowa, high school football and UNI football.”
Every UNI player seemed to light up when asked about the idea of Penning going in the first 32 selections.
"It's very exciting for people from this program to get drafted and be able to live out their dreams," said running back Dom Williams. "I know that he's been working very hard in the weight room, on the field, off the field, everything."
Williams was hardly alone in his excitement.
"That's pretty cool for Trevor," said punter and Cedar Falls native Cael Loecher. "I actually got to build a pretty good relationship with Trevor. It's really cool to get to see what he's going to be able to do. It's awesome. It's what you want from UNI."
Penning's stock has climbed over the past few months. Once considered a fringe first round pick, most mocks now have him going as high as 12th overall. Scouts from all 32 NFL teams were present at UNI's Pro Day last month in large part because of Penning. He's been mocked to go anywhere from the Baltimore Ravens to the New Orleans Saints to the Los Angeles Chargers and more.
To Penning, however, where he goes is irrelevant. All that matters to him is that he gets a chance.
Still, he knows how big of a moment it would be.
“That would mean a ton,” Penning said via a Zoom press conference in December. “UNI’s a legendary program so it would definitely be amazing to be (the highest pick ever). There’s been some great players to come through here like Spencer (Brown), David Johnson...It’d be insane to be able to be the top guy at the school ever.”
Two degrees of separation
UNI quarterback Theo Day spoke at the Panthers' spring game about how happy he'd be for Penning to go in the first round. However, there's another player Day is rooting for who may end up going first overall.
Michigan edge rusher Aiden Hutchinson was Day's go-to tight end when the two played together at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan. Now, Hutchinson is universally considered a lock to be taken with one of the first two picks of the draft.
"We grew up together with the same friend group," Day said. "We've started playing football together in seventh grade. He's just developed over time into a dominant player. Even back then you knew he was going to be special just by how he carries himself and how he works."
For months now, Hutchinson had been penciled in as the consensus number one pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars. In recent days, however, there's been heavy speculation that Jacksonville will select Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker instead. It's unanimously believed that should Walker go first, Hutchinson will then be selected by his home state team, the Detroit Lions, at number two.
Day seemed just as excited about that possibility as the idea of Hutchinson going first.
"All my boys would be excited about that," Day said with a smile. "We'll see what happens."
While Penning has certainly gotten the bulk of the attention, many draft experts believe he won't be the only Panther selected over the three day event.
Wide receiver Isiah Weston is expected to be chosen at some point in the Saturday portion of the draft, when the fourth through seventh rounds take place. Some analysts have even pegged Weston as a late third rounder after he posted an impressive showing at the NFL Combine.
Weston spent a long time talking with assistant coaches from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions at UNI's Pro Day last month. It was then that Weston told The Courier he hoped to show younger athletes that anything is possible no matter where you start.
"It doesn't matter where you end up," Weston said. "Whatever level you end up at, it doesn't matter where you start...(UNI is) a small school, but look at the guys we produce...When your only opportunity is DII, DIII or FCS, take it. Make the most of every opportunity."
Don't you forget about me
In addition to Penning and Weston, UNI has seven other alumni hoping to be one of the 266 players chosen over the weekend. If not, they'll hope to hear their phone ring after the draft about signing an undrafted free agent contract.
Defensive lineman Jared Brinkman, defensive back Austin Evans, offensive lineman Antoine Frasier, linebacker Alfonso Lambert, edge rusher Brawntae Wells, running back Bradrick Shaw and tight end Kyle Fourtenbarry have all entered their names in the draft.
Brinkman is a former FCS All-American while Shaw and Evans posted impressive numbers at their Pro Days last month. Even if they aren't chosen in the first seven rounds, be on the lookout for their names in the days following the draft.
Around the state
Morningside wide receiver Reid Jurgensmeier and Upper Iowa defensive lineman Erik Hansen both participated in UNI's Pro Day last month. Hansen had solid numbers at the Pro Day and worked out at multiple positions, including fullback. Notably, the scout from the New Orleans Saints spent a great deal of time talking to Hansen throughout the day and afterward.
There are two other potential first round picks expected to come out of the Hawkeye state.
Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum is considered the best center in the entire draft and a likely first round pick. Iowa State's Breece Hall is considered the top running back in the pool and either a first or second round choice.
Iowa defensive back Dane Belton is projected as a third day pick. Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar is widely considered a mid-round draft pick while Chase Allen could be a late round pick or an undrafted free agent priority. Defensive lineman Eyioma Uwazurike is considered a mid-round pick while quarterback Brock Purdy is viewed as a late-round pick or priority free agent.