Leistikow: How good can Iowa pass-rusher A.J. Epenesa become? 'His ceiling is really high'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Reese Morgan seemed energized as he met with reporters Tuesday afternoon. That's because the 19th-year Iowa football assistant gets particularly jazzed up for this time of year: Spring ball.

For five weeks, each of the 15 spaced-out, NCAA-allotted practices are dissected and analyzed. From coach to player, there’s always something to teach, something to correct.

It’s a crucial part of the development phase of a developmental program.

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (94) recorded 4.5 sacks as a true freshman defensive end. How much better can he be in Year 2 after a full year of the Hawkeyes' strength-and-conditioning program?

“We have ample time to meet and correct,” Morgan said. “If you love football, and you love to coach, and you like to teach, this is really a fun time. And we really like the guys in the room.”

And when it comes to the position Morgan coaches — the defensive line — there’s one guy, in particular, that fans are extra-excited about.

A guy that they should be excited about.

And they wonder: Just how good can defensive end A.J. Epenesa become as a Hawkeye?

The answer, of course, will play out over the next two or three seasons.

But, the early signs are that the rarely-seen-here five-star recruit is off to a fantastic start to his college career.

“It’s difficult for a young guy to do what A.J. did in the fall,” Morgan said, “to come out as a true freshman … and get put in there. But he has the athleticism.”

Epenesa was weened into the Hawkeyes’ defensive plans last fall, but it didn’t take him long to provide an instant boost.

He sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen in his very first game, and he would end his freshman season with 4.5 sacks — tying all-American Josey Jewell for second on the team behind Anthony Nelson’s 7.5.

Epenesa's production came without the benefit of going through Chris Doyle’s winter strength-and-conditioning program. Now with that under his belt — Epenesa added seven pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame, and is now listed at 277 — the task this spring is to blend more tactical craft with his raw talent.

“His goal is to learn the defense more and to understand the adjustments and so forth,” Morgan said. “And try to perfect and work on your technique, fundamentals. Not only in the pass game, but also in the run game."

Iowa freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa reacts after sacking Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen late in the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

Epenesa’s upside is tantalizing to anyone who sees him.

Coaches saw enough to have confidence they could roll him out in Iowa’s third-down packages. Eventually, they extended the leash and made him a fixture in the four-man rotation at defensive end — starters Nelson and Parker Hesse, backups Epenesa and Sam Brincks.

All four of those guys return, which has Hesse thinking ambitiously about what this unit can do to opposing quarterbacks in 2018.

A fifth-year senior, Hesse has seen Iowa record middle-of-the-pack sack totals in the past four years.

The Hawkeyes had 27 sacks in 2014; 30 in 2015; 28 in 2016; 29 in 2017.

Good numbers, not great. 

“Throughout my career, we’ve always felt like we can do a better job (in pass rushing),” Hesse said. “That’s something this year that we really want to emphasize — being a force on third-down passing situations.”

In college football, there isn’t a much more important piece of the game than defensive-line play — namely, disrupting the quarterback.

Just look at the top four pass-rushing teams in 2017: Southern California (46 sacks), Clemson (46), Ohio State (45) and Miami of Florida (44).

Combined, they had a 45-10 record.

Pressure on the quarterback matters.

And maybe, just maybe, Iowa has the horses to jump into the high 30s or even low 40s in sacks this fall.

Morgan last year mentioned on multiple occasions that he could see Epenesa sliding inside to defensive tackle. That never happened, and it no longer is in the plans.

Epenesa will stay out wide. Instead, Morgan said Tuesday that the team has moved Chauncey Golston (6-5, 265) inside to defensive tackle.

“We’d like to keep (Epenesa) in one spot,” Morgan said, “and make sure he really has a thorough understanding and knowledge of that position.”

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (94) puts pressure on Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley during their game Sept. 23 in Iowa City.

Epenesa hasn’t been unleashed to Iowa media yet; it’s typically head coach Kirk Ferentz’s policy to withhold true freshmen from reporters.

So for now, we have to rely on what others are telling us about Epenesa.

And from a football perspective and character perspective, it all sounds good.

“What a humble kid. What a hard-working kid,” Morgan said. “A guy that’s had all the notoriety in recruiting that he’s had, it would be very easy to be self-centered. And he’s totally the opposite of that.”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Recently, Epenesa’s father, Eppy, posted a Facebook message toward fans that were cranky about seeing Epenesa on the No. 2 line (behind Hesse; 6-3, 261) on the Hawkeye depth chart.

“I know everyone has an opinion that A.J. should start, but he still has a lot to learn. Stay patient, Iowa nation!” he wrote. “Parker Hesse is a good kid from a great family and (an) amazing teammate to A.J.”

That type of grounded but determined approach is heart-warming to see, and it seems consistent with Epenesa’s behind-the-scenes demeanor.

“That’s what makes him fun to play with," Hesse said. "That’s what makes him fun to practice with."

It'll be fun to watch what Epenesa — and the Hawkeye defensive ends — can do.

“His ceiling is really high," Hesse said. "That’s something that is really exciting, to just be with a guy that keeps pushing the limits. He’s going to push everyone else in the room. And he’s going to help bring our level of play all the way up.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.