Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is a potential all-American. But that's not what drives him. Listen: Hawk Central
For the third year in a row, the high-end talent on the Iowa football team won’t be in its senior class.
That’s an outdated notion in an era where dozens of players annually bolt for the NFL Draft as soon as they’re eligible.
Last weekend, the Hawkeyes saw four of them — T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Anthony Nelson and Amani Hooker — hear their names called in Nashville, Tennessee. No Iowa seniors were drafted.
Already, two Hawkeye juniors-to-be are being mentioned as potential top 10 draft picks a year from now. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs are seen as potential game-changers at the next level.
Of course, they have at least one season of college left to play. But it’s never too early to project what current Hawkeyes will be on the NFL radar next April.
Let’s start with these seven, but keep in mind that two years ago, cornerback Josh Jackson was not in this discussion; last year Hockenson wasn’t either. A lot can change in the next seven months.
A.J. Epenesa, 6-6, 280, junior defensive end
The native of Glen Carbon, Illinois, has been considered an elite talent for years. He’s backed up all the hype in his first two Hawkeye seasons, despite a less-than-full workload.
NFL Draft expert Dane Brugler of The Athletic projects Epenesa as the No. 4 draft pick next April. Epenesa is considered by many to be one of the two premier edge pass rushers in college football (Ohio State’s Chase Young the other).
“It was impossible not to notice Epenesa and his combination of power and body control when watching the Hawkeyes defense last season,” Brugler wrote.
Josh Liskiewitz, the Big Ten Conference scout for Pro Football Focus, was among those who marveled at Epenesa’s productivity. The 6-foot-6, 280-pounder was credited with 10 sacks, 10 other hits on quarterbacks, 26 hurries and three passes batted down. That all came on the 243 occasions when he rushed the passer.
In the PFF grading system, Epenesa clocked in at 90.4 against the pass and 85.2 against the run (on a scale of 1 to 100). An average grade is 68. Anything above 85 is considered elite.
“There’s not many guys in the country that are going to be like that,” Liskiewitz said. “That’s elite all-around grading from him last year. And if you put two of those years together and you have the athletic stats (at the NFL Combine) to back it up, it’s tough to argue that he’s not a top 10 pick.”
Tristan Wirfs, 6-5, 320, junior offensive tackle
Brugler has the 6-5, 320-pound right tackle going seventh overall in his preliminary mock draft.
“He is a powerful drive-blocker in the run game and stays balanced in pass protection, not allowing speed to stress him,” Brugler wrote.
Pro Football Focus had Wirfs with zero sacks allowed last year and held him responsible for only four hits on quarterback Nate Stanley. All that, and he excels in run-blocking, Liskiewitz noted.
“He’s got the size they’re looking for and just the all-around skill set,” Liskiewitz said.
Alaric Jackson, 6-6, 320, junior offensive tackle
On the other side of Iowa’s offensive line, Jackson graded out a little better than Wirfs in the pass game, but not as good in the run game. Jackson (6-6, 320) is also a junior who likely will have an NFL decision to make.
“I don’t think he’s quite as dynamic as Wirfs, but he’s graded out extremely well,” Liskiewitz said.
“Jackson’s going to have to work on the penalties a little bit. He had four of them last year. He’s maybe not getting the attention of his teammate, but he’s pretty good, too.”
Nate Stanley, 6-4, 243, senior quarterback
Stanley thought briefly about entering the NFL Draft after a junior season that included 2,852 yards and 26 touchdown passes. But Liskiewitz said those numbers masked a pair of significant concerns about Stanley, areas he’ll need to address this season.
For one, Stanley completed only 17 of 56 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air.
“That’s just not good enough,” Liskiewitz said. “That’s extremely important in the NFL, because you’re expected to be accurate 10 yards and under. It’s what you do beyond that.”
Secondly, Stanley’s numbers suffered dramatically when he faced pressure. Pro Football Focus had him 38-for-101 with four touchdowns, five interceptions and 15 sacks when opponents hurried him.
“That is not pretty right there,” Liskiewitz said.
Stanley, with three years as a starter under his belt, is almost certain to be drafted. But if he wants to move into the top three rounds, he’ll need to answer those questions, LIskiewitz said. Otherwise, he’ll be seen as a project.
“The reality is you have to be willing to gamble on quarterbacks if you’re an NFL team. That’s the key to everything,” Liskiewitz said. “You can’t just sit back and be content with an average quarterback. That’s how people get fired.”
Iowa fifth-year senior Michael Ojemudia has been playing cornerback, "cash" linebacker and strong safety this spring. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Michael Ojemudia, 6-1, 200, senior cornerback
It’s been a bumpy ride for the senior cornerback in his Hawkeye playing career. But Liskiewitz sees promise based on Ojemudia’s size, his athletic ability and Iowa’s history of producing NFL-caliber defensive backs.
Ojemudia graded very well in PFF’s system, allowing receptions on only 20 of 42 passes thrown in his area a year ago (anything below 60 percent is considered good). He had three interceptions and another seven passes defended.
The problem for Ojemudia was allowing big plays, including a pair of touchdowns early in the year and three receptions of 30 yards or more in his final four games.
“He’s got to work on that. If he can clean all of that stuff up, I like his skill set,” Liskiewitz said.
Geno Stone, 5-10, 210, junior safety
The junior safety is another Iowa defensive back who may be poised for a breakout year in the mold of Jackson and Hooker the past two falls, Liskiewitz believes.
Stone took over Hooker’s starting spot four games into last season and graded out as second only to Hooker in pass coverage for the Hawkeyes.
Stone, at 5-10, 210 pounds, didn’t grade particularly well against the run. But it’s coverage skills that NFL teams covet these days. And Stone allowed seven receptions for a mere 23 yards a year ago. He intercepted four passes and batted away two others.
“I’m not saying he’s shown enough to be a first-round pick,” Liskiewitz said. “But he can certainly step up into that conversation if he backs those numbers up.”
Chauncey Golston, 6-5, 265, junior defensive end
Golston is Iowa’s “other” junior defensive end, coming off a huge performance in the Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State on Jan. 1.
He is not an NFL prospect entering the season, after recording six sacks, four quarterback hits and 12 hurries in roughly the same number of pass-rushing plays as Epenesa. But he is about to get a lot more playing time to prove himself. And he was certainly disruptive in Iowa’s final spring practice Friday.
Golston will need to show that he can play the run better than he did a year ago. But don’t count him out as a potentially explosive edge rusher in an era where those are highly valued.
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.