We continue our countdown to the start of the Hawkeye football season with arguably the most talented player on Iowa’s roster.
A.J. Epenesa - Junior
Glen Carbon, Illinois (Edwardsville)
6’6”, 280 lbs
2019 Projection: Starting defensive end
Epenesa arrived at Iowa as one of the most decorated recruits of the Kirk Ferentz era. A high school All-American in both football and track, Epenesa followed in his father Eppy’s footsteps by suiting up for the black and gold. Epenesa successfully managed fans’ sky-high expectations for him during his first season at Iowa, seeing considerable playing time as a true freshman and racking up 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks en route to freshman All-Big Ten honors. Epenesa was a somewhat limited player as a freshman who was overly reliant on his athleticism to make plays, but ask Saquon Barkley whether the rookie was ready for Big Ten football or not:
While many fans were surprised and frustrated that Epenesa was not listed as a starter entering 2018, the talented sophomore proved he didn’t need to start games in order to dominate them. Epenesa was an absolute terror last season, compiling one of the most impressive stat lines of any Hawkeye defense end in years: 37 tackles (16.5 for loss), 10.5 sack, three passes defended, four fumbles forced, and one fumble recovered and returned for a touchdown (see below).
Despite coming off the bench, Epenesa earned first team All-Big Ten honors in 2018, in addition to being named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week following Iowa’s wins against both Illinois and Iowa State. Epenesa relied on both his relentless motor and crafty technique to find his way into opposing backfields last season, showing a real knack for separating himself from blockers.
When that didn’t work, Epenesa’s remarkable strength allowed him to overpower opposing offensive linemen with a dominant bull rush reminiscent of former Hawkeye greats such as Matt Roth and Adrian Clayborn.
Epenesa will assuredly start for the Hawkeyes this year, but ironically may find it more difficult to rack up the same statistics he did as a sophomore. The departure of Iowa’s entire starting defensive line will allow opposing OLs to make Epenesa the sole focus of their attention next season, and he is likely to face double teams at a rate he hasn’t seen since high school. Still, Epenesa’s importance to the Iowa defense is undeniable; not only will his athleticism, technique, and football smarts still allow him to make plays, but opponents’ overwhelming focus on blocking him will make it much easier for his teammates to do so as well.
Epenesa is already projected to be a potential top ten pick in next year’s NFL draft, so Hawkeye fans should enjoy watching #94 in the black and gold while they still can. For Iowa’s sake, one can only hope that Epenesa can continue making more big plays for the Hawkeye defensive line in 2019.