IOWA CITY, Iowa — Upon the snap, A.J. Epenesa shoots out of his stance untouched, flying toward Saquon Barkley on a zone-read option.
In four steps, Epenesa covers five yards and slams his right shoulder into Barkley’s left hip. The Penn State star flies head over feet, landing on his facemask.
With that hit, America was introduced to the Iowa freshman defensive end.
Epenesa, a former 5-star recruit, is doing everything Iowa has asked of him through six games. Coming out of the bye week, this is the time for Iowa to starting asking more. Epenesa’s most famous play ties into the next step in his development. It’s time for everyone to see his run-stopping potential.
“He’s doing a little bit better job of that, and playing on first and second down,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “He’s understanding that. Obviously the reps he’s been getting from camp and all the last six weeks of the season here, I think it’s really going to help us later on in the run game.”
Epenesa is a complete defensive end prospect. His strength, size, agility and athleticism help him as much with the run as with his pass rush. His play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl practices last January instilled confidence in his ability to stop the run at the college level.
But he wasn’t in position early in the season to show off the skills that helped him outmuscle 5-star offensive tackles.
The Hawkeyes brought him along slowly. They treated him a lot like quarterback Nate Stanley, exposing him to only part of the playbook. Epenesa began the season playing primarily in passing situations and as part of a specific pass-rush package with defensive tackle Brady Reiff and defensive ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse.
It didn’t take long for his physical traits to show up.
Iowa’s plan worked. He recorded 9 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in his first six games. Fans, and some in the media, wanted more snaps for Epenesa. That will likely happen going forward.
He has more than earned it.
“We are building him up,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He has brought some energy out there. He has got unusual maturity physical and has a real good energy level and is very coachable. Just hasn’t played much. Expected to get him out there and for him to learn with each week.”
A.J. Epenesa’s next step
The increased playing time must come on early downs. There is no real way around it. Epenesa is now playing about 30-40 snaps a game. He possesses the ability to set the edge and be an impact player against the run. His size and strength can be problems for offensive linemen. His handwork is good enough to quickly shed blockers and get to the ball carrier. He put it all together against Michigan State.
This is why Epenesa is so intriguing. He brings the potential to do it all on the defensive line. Right now, it’s still potential.
Epenesa does a good job of getting to the quarterback, but doesn’t always finish. In the run game, he has lost contain and didn’t always respond to zone-read options correctly against No. 3 Penn State and Michigan State.
He’s young. That’s why getting him on the field on first and second down matters. He needs exposure to rushing plays to improve. Based on the comments of Ferentz and Parker, the Hawkeyes understand this and it sounds like it was part of the plan all along.
And now the time is here. The second half of the season is about developing Epenesa’s all-around game. Ideally, one Barkley-like hit at a time.