Undrafted rookie Pennel making run for roster spot
Everywhere Mike Pennel has played football, he's been one of the biggest, strongest, most impressive looking players on the team.
The massive defensive lineman also has underachieved and been anything from a mild to major disappointment at each stop in his college career.
But after dedicating himself to the game to a higher degree than he had in the past, Pennel now is making a spirited bid to win a spot on the Green Bay Packers' 53-man roster, or practice squad at minimum, as an undrafted rookie.
Pennel is far from the best-known undrafted rookie on the Packers' roster — tight end Colt Lyerla and outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard hold that distinction — but he's looking like he might have an NFL future as a run-plugging nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.
"He's a big, strong kid that has good feet," said Mike Trgovac, the Packers' defensive line coach. "He's a huge man, hard to move in the middle."
Said guard Josh Sitton: "He's a big ol' grizzly bear for sure. Strong guy."
In May, the Packers signed Pennel as a relatively anonymous undrafted rookie who'd finished his college career at a Division II school, Colorado State-Pueblo.
But he'd actually been a highly recruited player coming out of high school in suburban Denver and had accepted a scholarship offer to Arizona State until he failed to qualify academically. After spending two years at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, Pennel made it into Arizona State, where defensive coordinator Paul Randolph described him to the Arizona Republic as a "once-in-20-years" physical talent.
However, Pennel's career at Arizona State flamed out quickly because of suspensions for breaking team rules and not meeting team standards of behavior.
That led to him finishing his career at Colorado State-Pueblo, where he transferred on the recommendation of a former Arizona State teammate who was playing there. Pennel showed up for training camp last summer overweight and out of shape at 6-feet-4½ and more than 350 pounds. Over the course of the season, he won over the coaching staff with an upbeat personality and flashes of impressive talent.
His head coach, John Wristen, was an assistant coach for 17 years at Colorado, Northwestern and UCLA before re-starting the program at Colorado State-Pueblo in 2008.
"(Pennel) was the most athletic big guy I've been around," Wristen said.
Though the coaches at Colorado State-Pueblo liked Pennel, they thought he didn't dominate Division II like he should have. He finished 2013 with six tackles for a loss, three sacks, four passes knocked down and three forced fumbles, but he wasn't a full-time player because of the weight and conditioning issues.
However, Pennel showed enough potential to be invited to the NFL scouting combine. After the initial euphoria of the invite wore off, he worked hard enough in the weeks leading up to the combine to drop to 332 pounds, which is his listed weight with the Packers.
"If he'd have come in and attacked what we did last summer like he's attacking making the team in Green Bay, I think he'd have been drafted," said Hunter Hughes, Colorado State-Pueblo's defensive coordinator. "I know he's got the ability, I just didn't think the work ethic was there every single play for us. But you could tell he was more driven to have a shot to go to the NFL."
Pennel ended up in Division II because his Division I career imploded early. Arizona State signed him to start immediately after his two years of junior college, but he also was heavy there — his listed weight was 355 — and lost the starting job for the opener to a freshman.
Arizona State coach Todd Graham then suspended Pennel for the second game for breaking team rules. And after two more games as a backup, Pennel suited up but didn't get on the field against California, which led to a post-game rant on Twitter that got him suspended indefinitely.
"Wow glad we won but warming the bench is a new feeling for me," he tweeted, and then continued: "How you expect me to smile when you disrespected me on national television." And he concluded with, "They will probably make me shut down my Twitter for not keeping my mouth closed… Nobody else to talk (to)."
When asked by another Twitter user why he'd been benched, Pennel responded "body language."
After the indefinite suspension, Pennel showed contrition, but his career at Arizona State effectively was over.
"Of course I wish everything could have gone a little differently," Pennel said in a recent interview in the Packers' locker room. "But I can't think of that now that I'm here. I'm just trying to move forward and forget about that time."
Pennel's career got back on track at Colorado State-Pueblo, which was more nurturing than Arizona State. Even after two years of junior college, Pennel wasn't mature enough to function well at a Division I football factory.
"I'd have to say the coaching staff (at Colorado State-Pueblo) treated me like another human being, like a person," Pennel said. "We came in with a plan on how we were going to do things, what (Wristen) wanted from me, what I wanted from him. Both of us stuck to it, and our relationship built beyond that. I had a good relationship with him and I love the city of Pueblo for giving me the opportunity to play again."
At the scouting combine, Pennel's 5.21-second 40-yard dash and 28½-inch vertical were good for a 332-pound player. He still went undrafted because of his history of underachieving but had options to sign after the draft and chose the Packers over Washington, Oakland and Kansas City.
Pennel isn't the kind of player who gains notice in training camp by making eye-catching sacks or tackles for a loss. But since the pads went on, he's shown an occasional ability to get some push in the middle of the line and been hard to move most of the rest of the time.
He flashed those abilities during team drills at the Family Night practice, moved up in the defensive line rotation last week, and then played 23 mostly effective snaps in the preseason opener at Tennessee on Saturday. In practice Monday, he had probably his best one-on-one pass rush of camp when he cleanly beat starting center JC Tretter right off the snap.
Now 2½ weeks into camp, it's clear that between his performance and injuries on the defensive line, Pennel has a shot at making the 53-man roster.
Two veteran defensive linemen, Letroy Guion and Jerel Worthy, haven't practiced because of injuries and one or both could be in danger of being released at final cuts if they can't return in the next three weeks. The Packers signed the free-agent Guion as a backup nose tackle, but he has a one-year contract that included a $100,000 signing bonus, which provides only limited security. Worthy, a second-round pick in 2011, missed most of last season because of knee-reconstruction surgery, and all offseason and training camp so far this year because of back surgery.
The Packers keep anywhere from five to seven defensive linemen and have five who essentially are locks: B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Josh Boyd and third-round pick Khyrie Thornton.
"(Pennel) was a difference maker (at Colorado State-Pueblo), I'll say that," Hughes said. "I wish he'd have been more — if he was in shape like he is now. It doesn't surprise me that he's got a legit shot to make it because I always thought the talent was there."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty