IOWA CITY, Iowa — Parker Hesse isn’t big on social media. He missed the uproar over the Iowa coaching staff listing him as starter over A.J. Epenesa at right end on the spring practice depth chart.
He didn’t miss Epenesa’s father, Eppy, calling him a “monster football player” in a passionate plea defending Hesse’s starting position.
Those close to him made sure he read it.
“I was extremely impressed, and you can definitely tell where A.J. gets his character and his attitude from,” Hesse told Land of 10. “His family, that’s how he was raised and that’s how he approaches things. I think as a defensive line, that’s one thing that’s really special about our room right now and our group is we look at things really collectively.”
I've seen plenty of discussion on A.J. Epenesa not being listed as a starter on Iowa's spring depth chart. Then I saw what his father posted on Facebook. pic.twitter.com/OKQTJGAzru
— Rob Howe (@RobHoweHN) March 21, 2018
Epenesa potentially serving as a backup is an issue for part of the fan base. Fans should follow the lead of Epenesa’s dad, a former Iowa defensive lineman, and the Iowa defensive ends.
It’s not a problem for them. In fact, it might be best for Epenesa’s development.
“It’s kind of a frenzy that we always want to have four guys out there who are running sideline to sideline with a lot of energy,” Hesse said. “So that’s the way we look at it is, we’re going to do it together as a group, no matter who is out there. I think [Epenesa is] a great example of someone who sees that and he understands.”
The A.J. Epenesa concern
The hand wringing from fans starts like this. Epenesa is the best recruit Iowa landed in a decade. He showed up ready-made for the Big Ten. The fear is if he’s not climbing up the depth chart he’s falling behind.
This is a first-world recruiting problem. Only 5-star prospects deal with such questions. There is also no credence in this line of thinking.
Starting has little impact on Epenesa’s development, production or the number of snaps he plays. That’s, in part, because of Hesse.
The fan base overlooks and undervalues Hesse. He was the typical 3-star Iowa recruit. He isn’t a star defender.
People view him as just another cog in the defense. Someone who does his job, but someone who started 8 games as a freshman is more than just any guy. The junior is entering his third season as a starter and as a key piece of the defense.
Iowa values his motor, fundamentals and the way teammates follow his lead. Hesse isn’t flashy, but he is quintessential Iowa.
“Parker Hesse is a core guy for us,” Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.
A.J. Epenesa’s reality
Beating Hesse out for a starting job isn’t easy. It also doesn’t matter.
The Hawkeyes rotated between eight and 10 defensive linemen last season. Epenesa played plenty then and will play plenty in 2018.
So will Hesse. In fact, they’ll share the field at the same time, just as they did when Hesse slid down to defensive tackle in pass-rush situations last season.
Epenesa is special, physically gifted and capable of doing things most defensive ends only dream of. He is the rare combination of speed, athleticism and power. He put it all on display while recording 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
In a lot of ways, it’s on Iowa not to mess up his potential. I think that’s where the concern over Epenesa not starting comes from.
“Right now with A.J.’s situation, the best thing for us is to do everything we can to give him an opportunity to be successful and learn,” Morgan said.
That means having him spend time with strength coach Chris Doyle. This was his first offseason in the strength program.
That means having him learn the defense and improve his fundamentals. Epenesa was a better pass rusher than run stopper last season.
That also means spending time around Hesse. There is plenty for a second-year player to take away from an upperclassman with 33 starts to his name.
Epenesa wants to learn from Hesse ,and Hesse is willing to pass on anything he can to his understudy.
“It’s a big-time transition from high school football to being in the Big Ten,” Hesse said. “He handled it extremely well and he did it just by focusing on small things, getting better at one thing at a time and being a good teammate. That’s something that’s going to keep helping him improve as he goes along here.”
Iowa is pleased with Epenesa’s progress. Fans should be too.
In time, it will lead to him starting. It could be this season. It could be in the future. It’s not worth fretting over. Or tweeting about.