IOWA CITY, Iowa — While A.J. Epenesa tried to gain inside leverage on a pass rush, North Texas offensive tackle Jordan Murray sent Epenesa flying into quarterback Mason Fine.
Epenesa hit Fine in the legs and refs called a 15-yard personal foul. Fellow defensive end Parker Hesse quickly approached Epenesa to say two things.
Don’t back off. Stay aggressive.
“He was rushing hard,” Hesse said. “Just playing hard. Sometimes that comes with the territory of playing hard.”
It was sage advice, something Epenesa will need to remember against No. 4 Penn State on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Epenesa makes his presence felt on the pass rush. It will be in Iowa’s best interest to unleash its freshman because the pass rush is vital to slowing down the Nittany Lions’ high-powered offense and quarterback Trace McSorley.
“He does a great job of being elusive and getting out of the pocket and he can make a lot of plays that way,” Hesse said. “Being disruptive and being disruptive while containing him is an emphasis for us up front.”
Why A.J. Epenesa is important
No one on the Iowa roster brings a better skill set to disrupt McSorley than Epenesa, a former 5-star recruit. He’s explosive, athletic and strong. It’s the Holy Grail of physical attributes on the edge.
“He is just a quick guy and then he can rally to the ball,” linebacker Bo Bower said, “especially when it’s thrown. He can run to the ball extremely fast for being a D-end and he does very well at it. It’s a big help for us.”
Epenesa’s impact doesn’t show up in his 3-tackle, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5-sack stat line, but on film. He’s consistently around the quarterback.
He carried a Wyoming offensive tackle right into quarterback Josh Allen. He picked up half a sack at Iowa State and was approaching Fine before getting knocked into him. Epenesa is doing everything but finishing off plays.
Teammates are just as taken by how quickly he picks things up.
“He’s gotten smarter,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He understands our defense more every day, which makes him a little bit faster in reading his keys. So he will be getting better every day I think and I can’t wait to see what he can do by the end of the year.”
The quicker he processes information, the better off he is. The more snaps he plays, the shorter the learning curve is.
A desire to slowly bring him along and depth at defensive end primarily limited Epenesa to pass-rush situations the first three weeks. It’s time to take the training wheels off. The Hawkeyes need Epenesa out for as many reps as possible.
Iowa needs a pass rush this week. Epenesa was the most consistent option over the first two games. It’s best for him and best for the Hawkeyes’ chances of winning this week if he does.
Why Iowa must disrupt Trace McSorley
Nothing went right for Iowa in is 41-14 loss to Penn State last season. The Nittany Lions scored at will while racking up 599 total yards.
One common trend kept emerging in the contest. McSorley made plays when they broke down and he navigated his way out of the pocket.
“Things like that he can take advantage of,” Hesse said. “We are going to have to make sure everyone has their run fits and in the pass game everyone is containing and rallying to the ball.”
Penn State’s offense is unique. It spreads teams out and wants to move the ball in large chunks. The Nittany Lions have topped the 40-point mark seven times in its last 10 contests. The to-do list to limit its damage is lengthy.
Tackle in space.
Be fundamentally sound.
Keep receivers in front of you.
Doing each one is no guarantee of slowing down Penn State. Disrupting McSorley and keeping him in the pocket, though, is as important as any of the other items. It’s the only one capable of offsetting a mistake in a different area.
“We try to move him off his spot and make him uncomfortable,” Hesse said. “He is a guy that you have to contain because when he is outside of the pocket he will take off down field in a hurry.”
That is where Epenesa comes in. Coach Kirk Ferentz is thrilled with Epenesa’s play. He refers to him as an outlier, the rare kind of player capable of coming in and looking at home on a Big Ten field months after high school graduation.
“He’s got a good energy to him,” Ferentz said. “He certainly belongs out on the field physically, and it’s just a matter of him just keep building on what he’s got.”
Why it’s time to unleash the freshman
An offense loaded with playmakers needs a difference maker to help get it off the field. Really, it needs several. Jewell is one at linebacker. Joshua Jackson is developing into one at corner. Epenesa can do the same up front.
“He is an athletic guy,” Jewell said. “He is quick. He is really good with his hands so he can get around guys pretty quick if he wants to and he can also bull [rush].”
Defensive end Anthony Nelson can make big plays. Hesse did it with North Texas. The Hawkeyes need all hands on deck on the line, and Epenesa appears ready for a bigger role.
“I’ve been really impressed with his maturity and how he approaches the game of football,” Hesse said. “He approaches it with a veteran mindset.”
After the North Texas penalty, Epenesa told Hesse he won’t slow down.
It’s exactly what the Hawkeyes want to hear. It’s exactly what they need him to do come Saturday.
They just need to put him in position to do so.