Hawkeyes' defense: AJ Epenesa bulldozes his way into Iowa football's plans at Kids Day

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A.J. Epenesa is such a disruptive force that he’s even creating a ripple effect on his own defensive line.

The Iowa freshman has bulldozed his way into the team’s plans this year, and it was evident during Saturday’s Kids Day practice at Kinnick Stadium.

On third-and-long, No. 94 would sprint onto the field, moving junior defensive end Parker Hesse inside in a package aimed at putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. All stats at practices are unofficial — and should be met with a raised eyebrow — but Epenesa was “credited” with four sacks.

Iowa freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa was in demand among autograph-seekers and by coaches looking for his pass-rushing edge at Saturday's Kids Day practice.

“He’s a freak. He’s athletic. He’s fast. He can do a lot of things,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said of Epenesa. “It will be fun to see him be able to understand the defense a little bit more and let him run a little more than he can now, because he still has to think a little bit.”

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Epenesa is a five-star recruit out of Edwardsville, Ill. He arrived on campus at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds and already carries himself as if he belongs on the field. That means Hesse might move inside at times, joining defensive tackle Brady Reiff and defensive end Anthony Nelson in what Hesse termed a quartet of “aggressive guys.”

Matt Nelson, normally a defensive end, also spent much of Saturday’s practice at tackle, another sign that Epenesa has found a home on the far right side of the Hawkeye defensive line.

“That’s something that could be a great strength for us is our depth and versatility. We have a lot of guys who are eager to help the team and eager to play football,” Hesse said. “So if you come with that attitude, it’s relatively easy to find a spot and get the job done.”

Hesse, a junior from Waukon, came to the Hawkeyes as a linebacker before being shuffled to defensive end. At 6-3, 257 pounds, he would normally be considered undersized for the interior of the line. He’s trying to use his quickness as an advantage there in pass-rushing situations.

“They wouldn’t put you there if you couldn’t succeed,” he said of Iowa’s coaching staff. “A lot of times, inside guys on the offensive line — centers and guards — aren’t used to quick get-offs and quick hands like that. So that’s something I’m trying to work on right now and I’m trying to implement inside rushes.”

Hesse picked the brain of senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata when the Hawkeyes unveiled the third-and-long defensive line formation. He said it’s shown early promise, but is far from a finished product.

“Our potential is a lot higher than productively we’ve been playing,” Hesse said. “I think we can really impact games, and … we have to live up to that potential.”

Potential is what Epenesa brings so far, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. He wouldn’t commit to high-volume playing time for the rookie.

“He’s impressed us. He definitely belongs on the varsity,” Ferentz said of Epenesa. “He has no idea what he’s doing most of the time right now, but physically he’s doing a pretty good job.

“If you don’t know what your responsibility is before the ball is snapped — he’s just inexperienced — that’s how you give up big plays. So we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a pretty good confidence level in him. He’s in the mix right now for playing time. So we’ll see how far he can go.”

Jewell, the bell cow of Iowa’s defense, has noticed all the intermingling of defensive linemen so far in training camp. It’s his job as middle linebacker to make sure things don’t go awry.

“You’ve got to build a little bit of trust when you’re doing that stuff because maybe sometimes they don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Because switching around positions isn’t the easiest thing,” Jewell said. “It’s good to build trust with other people, being able to understand if you can trust that guy, if he’s going to do his right job or if you’re going to have to go a little bit slower (to cover up a mistake).”

No one was going slower with Epenesa on the field Saturday. So far, he looks like he’ll live up to the considerable hype surrounding him.