Iowa football: Kelvin Bell on A.J. Epenesa's 2018 impact, recruiting

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s been a fun and insightful summer on our Hawk Central radio program, with all 10 Iowa football assistants plus head coach Kirk Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle joining the weekly conversation.

Our 12th and final spot in the rotation went to Kelvin Bell, the Hawkeyes' third-year recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach. His 25-minute appearance meant two things:

A.J. Epenesa recorded a sack in his first career game vs. Wyoming and finished his true-freshman campaign with 15 tackles, including 4.5 sacks. He's expected to be more of an every-down player as a sophomore.

One, the season’s almost here. (Big Ten Conference media days start Monday in Chicago. Fall camp opens the following week.)

Two, there would be good information presented. Bell, a straight-shooting former Hawkeye player, touched on a wide range of interesting topics Wednesday night.

By the way, if you missed any of our interviews, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts (search "Hawk Central") or find them archived at

Now, let’s get to the Bell highlights: 

Coaches are as excited about A.J. Epenesa’s sophomore year as you are.

The program’s top-rated recruit of the Kirk Ferentz era took the field last fall as a raw, true freshman — primarily as a third-down pass rusher. He registered 4½ sacks and was an impact player in his limited snaps.

Now the goal is to make him an impact player with a heavy workload of snaps.

“He’s got a great skill set,” said Bell, who assists Reese Morgan on the D-line. “And he’s too good a player just to be on third down.”

Bell doesn’t think fans will see a wildly different physical presence with Epenesa. He’s listed at 6-foot-5, 277 pounds — a seven-pound uptick from his listing at this time last year. But he does think you’ll see a smarter player against the run.

“His knowledge of the defense is a lot better than it was when he was a freshman,” Bell said. “I talk to him constantly about earning the right to rush the quarterback. How do you earn the right to rush the quarterback? You’ve got to be good on first and second down. His improvement as a first- and second-down player, that’s what I’m most excited to see this year.”

(In other words: If you want more sacks, get us more third-and-8s instead of third-and-3s.)

Bell also made some eye-opening comments about the defensive line in general — saying the group had good leadership but lacked the top-end talent he’d like to see. Still, this should be one of Iowa’s deepest position groups in 2018 … and one of the most important, considering three first-time starters will play behind them at linebacker.

Credit an Iowa defensive lineman for landing JUCO running back.

One of this summer’s most intriguing developments was the surprise arrival of Mekhi Sargent, a first-team all-American running back at Iowa Western Community College last fall.

Bell didn’t know it before he attended the Dec. 3 Graphic Edge Bowl at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, but he would soon identify Sargent as a possible future Hawkeye.

Bell was there for two reasons — one, to watch future Hawkeye defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon of Iowa Western; two, to catch up with coaching pals from the Reivers’ opponent, Northwest Mississippi Community College. (Bell is originally from Olive Branch, Mississippi.)

Sargent caught his eye.

“I had heard about the kid, but had never seen him play,” Bell said. “And he tore Northwest up.”

Sargent ran for 144 yards, his season average.

Bell walked away with this impression: "This kid’s just tough to tackle. He’s just a productive back. He didn’t lose yards. ... It was something I stored away. I didn’t know if we were going to go on a running back at all, but if so, here’s a kid that’s close that we might be able to steal."

So, Sargent is on campus and will be given an opportunity to play right away. Bell said he expects him to be “in the mix sooner than later” behind sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin.

Speaking of recruiting … 

Iowa has 14 Class of 2019 verbal commitments. Bell said he thought a good estimate of the final number would be 20 … which means there’s probably more attrition on the way. (We'll get back to you next week in Chicago, when Iowa releases its preseason roster.)

He also mentioned tight end as a top remaining priority position, even though the Hawkeyes have a long-held commitment there from well-regarded Logan Lee of Orion, Illinois.

That’s probably a tell that Hawkeye coaches are bracing for 2018 to be Noah Fant’s last at Iowa. The junior is a preseason all-American tight end and the Big Ten’s top returner in touchdown receptions with 11. (Redshirt sophomore T.J. Hockenson, who had 24 catches last fall, also becomes NFL Draft eligible in 2019.)

Bell also listed defensive end as a top remaining priority. Iowa is battling Ole Miss and West Virginia for three-star defensive end Tomari Fox out of Suwanee, Georgia.

That said …

“You never want to turn down a difference-making player, just because you’ve got a position filled,” Bell said. “If a guy can help us, then you’ll take him.”

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.