Utah defensive tackle John Penisini was expecting the worst heading into the third and final day of the NFL Draft.
He was hoping to just get a call and sign with a team as an undrafted free agent. So when the Lions took Penisini in the sixth round with the No. 197 overall pick on Saturday, it was a pleasant surprise.
“To be honest, it’s a blessing to actually make it to the sixth round. I was projected to be a seventh rounder or even undrafted,” Penisini told reporters on a conference call. “Right now, I’m excited. My mom’s happy and everyone is happy, so it is shocking and it’s a blessing to be honest.”
Part of that has to do with the long road Penisini took to get to this point. He didn’t have the grades coming out of high school that were required to play at Utah, so he went to Snow College, a junior college in Utah that was two hours away from his home, and “caught up from there.”
Penisini spent two years at Snow College, where he played in 2015 and redshirted in 2016 after he had shoulder labrum surgery to save a season of eligibility. While a scholarship offer from Utah “wasn’t set in stone” when he went to junior college, he focused on getting his grades up in case the opportunity arose. And it did.
“I graduated (with an associate degree), fixed everything, how I was a person over there,” Penisini said. “It really worked out for me. A humble blessing."
Penisini (6-foot-2, 333 pounds) went on to become a two-time All-Pac-12 selection at Utah. Last season, he played in all 14 games and tallied 38 tackles with seven tackles for loss and two sacks.
But as a run-stuffer playing alongside two All-Americans in Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae on Utah’s formidable D-line, Penisini didn’t receive the same recognition and was underrated, according to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
“He was outstanding for us,” Whittingham told the Desert News. “John Penisini is fundamentally and technique sound. Unselfish and has one of the best attitudes I’ve ever been around.”
Penisini also thought he was overlooked and called himself the “most slept on” player in the draft. His former teammates Fotu and Anae were taken in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, at No. 114 and No. 179.
“People don’t really look at me just because I was a shorter player and nameless," he said. "I was under the radar pretty much, definitely with the talent that we had at Utah.
“You guys are going to get a hard worker…Our program’s tough and they are built tough. That’s the kind of player you guys are going to get, just a tough player.”
Penisini played in 40 games, with 22 starts, over his three-year career at Utah and spent time playing at both tackle spots.
He will join a revamped defensive tackle unit in Detroit. The Lions cut Damon Harrison, let A’Shawn Robinson walk in free agency and have shown little interest in re-signing Mike Daniels. They’ve also signed former first-round pick Danny Shelton and Nick Williams, who had a breakout season with the Bears in 2019 with six sacks.
John Penisini, DT, Utah
Hometown: West Jordan, Utah (West Jordan High School)
Notable: Last season: 38 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles ... Two-time second-team All-Pac-12