Everyone knows the road to the NFL is tough. Millions of kids dream of it, and every year, only a shade over 250 of them hear their name called on draft. For former Utah defensive tackle John Penisini, that dream was realized this year, but his journey to the NFL nearly ended before he even landed at the University of Utah.
His talent on the field was undeniable. His senior year, he amassed 92 tackles and 6.0 sacks in just 10 games at West Jordan High School. 15 minutes away, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was keeping tabs. He knew his team could use a talent like him, but there was one big problem: Penisni wasn’t academically eligible to play at Utah with the grades he was getting. The two crossed paths at Utah’s senior defensive line camp, and Whittingham made it clear what Penisini had to do.
“Coach Whitt said, ‘Get your grades up and then we’ll be good,’” Penisini recalled the night he was drafted.
So Penisini had to take the road less traveled through the junior college system. He traveled 100 miles south to Snow College—quite literally in the opposite direction of the University of Utah.
“To be honest, it was hard from there because you’re at junior college where you are pretty much on your own straight from high school,” Penisini said. “I was two hours away from home, but I don’t have a car and my mom wouldn’t want to drive that far only just for games. You go up there, same as other junior colleges, but you know, food is limited. You’ve got to earn your stuff over there.”
Being away from family and playing ball with a new set of players, the turnaround didn’t happen immediately. His grades still weren’t where they needed to be, and Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, his main recruiter, started to get concerned.
“Is this what we’re going to get out of this kid?” Scalley remembers thinking to himself. “A lazy kid who we’re going to have to sit here and babysit?”
So Scalley called the defensive tackle over phone then made a trip down to Ephraim to chew him out.
“I just got all over him,” Scalley said. “‘You’ve made this commitment, you’ve signed, you’ve got to get your butt in gear, let’s go.’”
The turnaround was almost immediate. Penisini got his grades up, dominated at Snow College in 2015, and to show his allegiance to the University of Utah, he redshirted in 2016 to be eligible for three years at the next level. He transferred to Utah in 2017 as the most highly-touted prospect in the state, and off-the-field issues were never an issue again. In fact, his character immediately became one of his biggest strengths.
“He flipped the switch and got it done, and when get to the University of Utah, I don’t remember one time where that was ever an issue with him,” Scalley said.
Penisini’s journey at Utah, again, started from the bottom.
“Didn’t do so well my first year,” Penisini told the Crimson Corner podcast earlier this year. “But my junior year, that really opened my eyes.”
And that’s around the time Scalley became Penisini’s biggest fans. The hard work, the buy-in, that big smile of his. Penisini found his home at Utah, and nothing was going to stop him from giving everything he had to that University.
“He was an unselfish guy that just did everything that we asked of him,” Scalley said. “I shouldn’t say you don’t see it often, but with consistency—day after day after day—it never stopped that he would turn and run to the ball.”
In fact, Utah kept data on just how hard their players worked during practice, tracking their movement via technology in their equipment. Penisini’s numbers were off the charts.
“His was always the highest on the defensive side of the ball,” Scalley said. “Just an unbelievable work ethic, unbelievable desire to get better and do everything we’ve asked him to do.”
That work ethic began on the practice field finally started to pay off on Saturdays. He was named to the All-Pac-12 second team in back-to-back years, posted consistent numbers from year to year, and became part of the best defensive line in the conference—arguably the nation. Thanks to Penisini’s contributions in the run game—“All this kid does is eat double teams for breakfast,” Scalley said—Utah allowed just 81.8 rushing yards per game in 2019 (third in nation) and 15.0 points per game (sixth).
That hustle also produced a couple iconic plays that led to endeared him to his fanbase, tracking quarterbacks or running backs down the field to force fumbles:
Now moving to the NFL, Penisini will face more challenges. He stands at just 6-foot-1 with an arm length a shade under 32 inches—well undersized for the nose tackle position.
“If he did have that length, he’d probably be a second rounder,” Scalley said.
But with the Detroit Lions, he’ll have a chance to step into a defense that is now missing key defensive tackles from last year in Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson. Though Detroit brought in Danny Shelton to be the team’s starter, Penisini will be fierce competition with John Atkins for the backup job.
And there’s a pretty good chance this coaching staff is going to fall in love with him right away. Take it from his old defensive coordinator:
“As a coach you’re always looking for those types of guys. Guys that buy into the process, buy into your culture, and he was a guy that bought in from Day 1.”
I asked Scalley what sort of coaching and motivation Penisini responds to, and before I even finished the sentence he said, “Anything. I could yell and scream and call him every word in the book, and he’ll smile and say, ‘Yes, coach,’” Scalley laughed. “He’s not a guy who shies away from being coached hard, and I never really had to, because he was the one running. It was, ‘Hey, run like John! Work like John!’”
Sounds like a Matt Patricia guy through and through.
So, ultimately, what are the Lions getting in Penisini?
“John was everything you want in a football player in terms of buying into the program, being a tremendous athlete,” Scalley said. “(When) your best athletes are your hardest workers, that’s when you know you’ve got something special, and that was what we had with John.”