Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar talk about the late push from Iowa as they round out this year's recruiting class.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A.J. Epenesa almost became an afterthought Wednesday, a crazy thought to imagine.
But the Edwardsville, Ill., native has been committed for almost 13 drama-free months, so it was easy to forget he's the most highly decorated recruit Kirk Ferentz has signed in 18-plus years at Iowa.
Epenesa is the real deal.
“I say it jokingly but I mean it seriously, too,” Ferentz said after Iowa had signed 22 recruits, none more dynamic than Epenesa. “There are certain players that my sister could look at and say, ‘That guy is pretty good.’”
Epenesa, the No. 6 overall player in the country according to 247sports.com, impresses Ferentz even more as a person.
Iowa's coach talks of his recruiting class' five-star prize.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end who has five recruiting stars by his name, who could’ve played for any program in the country, is basically the perfect character fit at Iowa.
“A poised guy, very humble. He's been raised the right way,” Ferentz said of Epenesa, whose father (Eppy) played at Iowa under Hayden Fry. “He's got a … tremendous family, great support network at home, at school. So he's never been, at least from my vantage point, never been impressed with the whole thing, the (recruiting) process. Just taking it day-by-day and has been unwavering in terms of his commitment.
“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.”
This is a guy the Hawkeyes don’t normally get; it's their first five-star in more than a decade.
Talk then swirled to where Epenesa fits on the football field.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell said it would be unrealistic to expect Epenesa to come in and play starter’s reps as a true freshman, but that the opportunity was there.
The question is, will it be at defensive end or tackle? Answer: Maybe both.
Once strength coach Chris Doyle gets his hands on Epenesa in June, it’ll be interesting to see how big he’ll get.
“He gives us the unique ability to play all four spots (on the defensive line),” said Bell, who is also the assistant defensive line coach. “It’s hard to say he’s going to come in and play 60, 70 snaps a game. That’s not what we’re asking him to do. Just to kind of fill in and supplement. The more he can do, the more he’ll play. If he’s comfortable outside, we’ll start him outside. If we need him to move inside, he’d have that flexibility.”
Safe to say, it’s a luxurious dilemma for Iowa to have.
Though it was National Signing Day, talk shifted to Iowa’s three assistant-coach vacancies. The previous time Ferentz had met with the assembled media on Jan. 9, he was introducing his son, Brian, as offensive coordinator.
Since that time, running backs coach Chris White and wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy did not have their contracts renewed. Iowa hasn’t yet filled those spots, or the position opened by previous offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
Expect the staff to be piecemealed together, maybe finished in two to three weeks.
“We're starting to get focused on what we want to do right now and have a pretty good idea about how one is going to go,” Kirk Ferentz said. “And now we're focused on candidates for the second position, and then the third thing we will get to.”
Clear as mud, right?
One thing Ferentz did mention is that he thought it’d be difficult for Brian Ferentz to continue coaching the offensive line while also being coordinator.
“That would certainly present some challenges,” Kirk Ferentz said.
As for not retaining White and Kennedy, Ferentz said bluntly, “Those are just decisions I made that I think had to be made. They're never easy. I've got the utmost respect for both Chris and Bobby. They're both tremendous people. But I felt like for this program, at this time, this is what we needed to do at this point.
“That being said, our focus now turns to making sure we get the right people in the right seats over the next couple of weeks. And I've been working on that, as you might imagine.”
A massive trophy presentation
Iowa was named winner of the Joe Moore Award in December for having college football’s most outstanding offensive line unit. On Wednesday, the sport’s largest trophy — over 350 pounds in weight — was in the Iowa Football Performance Center.
Aaron Taylor, an analyst for CBS Sports who was a Moore disciple and is a spokesman for the award, was on hand to explain why the Hawkeyes won it over finalists Ohio State and Alabama despite offensive struggles.
“The way that they played together. They personified — according to the feedback that I got back from 30 or 40 of the voters — what this position is about,” Taylor said. “That’s working your tail off. That’s being tough. That’s coming together. Words like synchronicity, orchestra, poetry, dancing bears … these guys were guilty of.”
(Note: Calling Iowa’s 2017 offensive line the “Dancing Bears” just became a possibility.)
Back to recruiting …
If Epenesa is this recruiting class’ gold signing, then offensive linemen Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf and Tristan Wirfs of Mount Vernon should be awarded silver.
Both were rated as four-star prospects by Scout.com. Kallenberger (6-6, 260) has a frame that can pack on weight, and Iowa projects him as a tackle. Wirfs (6-5, 315) could play guard or tackle.
"They both fit the profile we were looking for," Ferentz said. “We've had them in camps and had a chance to work with them. Which is a nice thing, that's a luxury for us to be able to coach guys — kind of like they just had the Senior Bowl and those two staffs (who) got to see the players in a different light.
“We think those guys have a really good chance to be good offensive players for us.”
Iowa’s Class of 2016 boasted a lot of position flexibility. So does this one, which, as of late Wednesday, was ranked 41st nationally by 247sports.com’s composite of several recruiting sites.
Some of the names brought up Wednesday:
--Trey Creamer (6-0, 175) was classified by Iowa as an "athlete." Bell said Creamer could play running back, wide receiver or defensive back. “Wherever he can help us the quickest is where he’ll be,” Bell said.
--Coy Kirkpatrick (6-5, 275) was recruited as a defensive end, but will start with the offensive line.
--Nate Wieland (6-1, 220) was a quarterback at Iowa City High, but Ferentz thinks he’ll be a linebacker at Iowa. "I see him in that Anthony Hitchens mold," Ferentz said.
--Late signee Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) brings a similar frame to current Hawkeye cornerback Manny Rugamba and was recruited elsewhere as a defensive back. But he’ll be a wide receiver for Iowa, Ferentz said, because of need. "He's a dynamic, exciting player," Ferentz said.