IOWA CITY, Iowa — Defensive end A.J. Epenesa is Iowa’s first 5-star player in 12 years and perhaps the most high-profile recruit in Kirk Ferentz’s 18 seasons as football coach.
Epenesa, who has grown to 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, picked Iowa on Jan. 17, 2016, more than a year before his signing day. He and his family surprised Ferentz in person for the commitment, and Epenesa stuck with it before signing his letter on intent in February.
So what does Epenesa think of his college coach?
“I love Coach Ferentz,” said Epenesa, who lives in Edwardsville, Ill. “He’s an awesome coach. He’s old-school. He gets it. He understands how everything works. He’s been there 18 years. I think he signed a contract for five more.
“He’ll be my coach for my whole career at Iowa, and I’m pretty excited to play under him because he’s well-known throughout the country. He knows what he’s doing. They’ve never questioned what he says, and like we’ve always said around here, you’ve got to trust the process and he understands the process.”
— AJ Epenesa (@ajepenesa24) January 30, 2017
During his official visit, Epenesa attended a Saturday night Iowa-Ohio State basketball game, then went to his room early. The next morning he and the rest of the recruits had breakfast at Ferentz’s house before traveling home.
“I got to beat some people in pool; that’s what I do,” Epenesa said. “I’m not like a competitive pool player, but I just enjoy to play pool. Ping pong, I’ll do it. I’d like to say I’m competitive at everything. If there’s winning or losing in it, I’m trying to win.”
Speculation has swirled that Epenesa could help at defensive tackle, a position in flux after the Hawkeyes lost All-Big Ten talent Jaleel Johnson (Minnesota Vikings) and part-time starter Faith Ekakitie. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker this spring all but ruled out Epenesa shifting from end to tackle.
“To ask a true freshman as a defensive lineman to come in, and, ‘Hey, you’re going to be our starting defensive end and we’re going to move you inside and play a three technique or one technique,’ I think that’s a little too much right now,” Parker said.
Epenesa’s preference is to stay at defensive end, but he’s a team-first player.
“In all honesty, I hope to stay at defensive end,” Epenesa said. “That’s where I feel I can do the most to help out. If the call is for me to play defensive tackle, then I’ll play defensive tackle. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. I’m just going to come in with the mindset that I’m going to get better every day and continue to work hard and hopefully with that mindset it will get me some playing time.”
It appears that Epenesa will wear a jersey number other than his customary No. 99, which is taken by senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata.
“I think we decided I’ll be wearing 54 for my first year and try to go back to 99 for my sophomore year,” Epenesa said. “But we’ll see how 54 fits me.”