IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s bland, supposedly stale, recruiting staff ran out of superlatives when describing the best recruit in the Kirk Ferentz era on Wednesday afternoon.
A.J. Epenesa, a 5-star prospect from Edwardsville, Ill., finally put his name on a sheet of paper and will play football at Iowa next year. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, Epenesa has the body to play right away. He has the temperament to compete at Iowa yesterday. And he has the talent to play 10,000 tomorrows.
That’s not hyperbole, either. The Hawkeyes’ football staff normally praises athletes for their attitude and attention to detail but quickly downshifts on expectations. That’s not the case with Epenesa. He’s special.
“I’m not going to say that he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player, but he might be,” said Tyler Barnes, Iowa’s director of recruiting. “He’s an incredible kid. Hopefully, we don’t screw him up.”
“A.J. is going to have an opportunity to play just about anywhere he wants up front,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said on Iowa’s in-house Swarm17 signing day spectacular.
Even Ferentz, who enters his 19th season as head coach, made an indirect comparison with a Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle he coached with the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-98.
“I say it jokingly, but I mean it seriously, too, there are certain players that my sister could look at and say that guy is pretty good.” Ferentz said. “I always look at my Jonathan Ogden moment thinking why am I looking at this guy? He’s a no-brainer, and some players are really talented. The thing I’m impressed more with is the way (Epenesa) thinks and the way he’s made up mentally. He approaches things the right way. He’s hungry. He’s team-oriented. It’s all about his team and what’s going on at his high school.”
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) February 1, 2017
Epenesa’s accolades are endless. He played in the U.S. Army All-American game. He earned first-team all-state honors for three seasons in high school. He was named the defensive MVP of the Polynesian Bowl last week with five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He’s one of the nation’s best discus throwers and has scored more than 1,000 points as a basketball player.
According to 247 Sports, Epenesa was ranked the nation’s 29th-best player and No. 2 defensive end. Rivals has him 30th overall and first at defensive end. He’s only the third 5-star Rivals recruit in Iowa history and neither of the other two worked out for different reasons.
So why Iowa? Why didn’t Epenesa jump in a swimming pool with Jim Harbaugh? Why didn’t he pick Ohio State, Alabama or USC? Why just Iowa? Well, his father, Epenesa Epenesa, played at Iowa as a defensive tackle in the mid-1990s. He originally attended NAIA Iowa Wesleyan before transferring to the Hawkeyes and earning a letter in 1997. The family has remained close to Iowa since, and A.J. Epenesa grew up an Iowa fan.
He committed to the Hawkeyes barely two weeks after their Rose Bowl loss to Stanford in January 2016. Epenesa stayed loyal and never wavered. When several high-profile recruits bolted the Hawkeyes last fall, Epenesa stayed true. In fact, he tweeted “Loyalty above everything” as four players de-committed the program.
“A 5-star guy, he’s got a 2-star attitude,” said Iowa recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach Kelvin Bell on Swarm17. “He wanted to come to Iowa and there were no bones about it. He reflected that way throughout the entire process and that’s rare for a lot of 5-star guys. For me, that’s probably what stood out the most.”
“He’s very humble, blue-collar, tough, hard-nosed, but he’s also a freaky athlete,” Barnes said. “He’s a multi-sport athlete who’s just on Olympic levels with what he does in track. He’s a 1,000-point basketball player. But he’s still hungry and you can tell when you meet him. He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and he’s out to prove everybody wrong, which is scary when you look at everything else he’s got.”
Epenesa comes in at a position of strength for the Hawkeyes, who return their top three defensive ends next season. None of the three will even be a senior. Juniors Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson and sophomore Anthony Nelson combined for 15.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.
Ferentz rarely plays true freshmen along the line of scrimmage except out of necessity. Since 2007, that’s four: tackle Bryan Bulaga (2007), defensive lineman Christian Ballard (2007), offensive lineman James Daniels (2015) and defensive tackle Cedric Lattimore (2016). Epenesa has a chance to join that group and possibly start.
“I think it’s realistic to think he will have an opportunity,” Ferentz said. “Some guys just have unusual maturity and physical maturity as well as mental maturity and Bryan Bulaga comes to mind right now – a guy who played on the offensive line as a true freshman and a little closer to the ball for a guy out of high school. James Daniels was able to do it. Those guys don’t come along real often, but I think it’s realistic to think that he can certainly compete for some playing time and, if he’s good enough to start, that’s great.”
A 5-star talent with a 2-star attitude. That’s the best of both worlds in Ferentzland.