Leistikow: Even in his absence, A.J. Epenesa was Iowa's star of Big Ten Media Days

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — There was one Iowa football player who got far more attention than any other at the recently completed Big Ten Media Days.

And he wasn’t even there.

A.J. Epenesa and his seemingly unlimited potential was a hot topic for regional and national media that had a chance to ask 21st-year Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz a few questions Friday at the Hilton Chicago, which perhaps fittingly is situated about a mile north of Soldier Field.

Iowa’s junior defensive-end phenom has first-round NFL Draft potential. And that last word — potential — was where Ferentz pointed the conversation. Not the NFL part.

“He’s got phenomenal ability and he’s got a great attitude and done a lot of good things on the field,” Ferentz said in one of his many carefully worded Epenesa answers. “But he still has a lot of room for improvement. When he really figures out how to use all those skills he has, it’s going to be a lot of fun for him.”

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (94) celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown in the first half of a NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Champaign, Ill.

Ferentz’s longstanding approach of tamping down the hype on his young(ish) players is no surprise to those of us who have followed the team for a long time. It was just last summer when he took a similar approach with tight end Noah Fant, who (like Epenesa now) was entering his third year of college with countless preseason accolades.

Like Epenesa this year, Fant was left in Iowa City for 2018 Big Ten Media Days.

Asked why Epenesa wasn’t included in Iowa’s three-player lineup (of Nate Stanley, Toren Young and Michael Ojemudia), Ferentz was quick to say it was “nothing personal,” and that he could’ve picked any of about nine players to join him in Chicago.

Why not let the humble personality and impressive character of a potential top-10 draft pick shine in Chicago’s bright lights? Especially in his home state of Illinois entering what is more than likely his last year as a Hawkeye?

Epenesa would’ve been one of the stars of the week, a hulking billboard for Hawkeye football and a model program representative. In my eyes, it was a missed opportunity to leave him home.

But, like it or not, Ferentz often takes an alternative approach to his best players. He likes to let notoriety unfold naturally. Maybe that’s why instead he brought a backup running back and cornerback who has yet to start a full season.

An answer Ferentz gave about Stanley potentially breaking some passing records at Iowa more transparently reflected how he thinks. Rather than pump up the fact that Stanley has a good chance to surpass Chuck Long’s seemingly untouchable mark of 74 career touchdown passes, the coach who is No. 5 in Big Ten Conference history with 152 wins instead focused on the areas in which his senior quarterback could improve.

“It’s kind of like the Brad Banks story (in 2002),” Ferentz said. “Nobody knew who Brad was in August, and by the end of the year, we all knew. To me, it’s better when you let things happen.”

Remember that quote.

“It’s better when you let things happen.”

Because there’s no doubt Epenesa will be unleashed this fall. Things will happen. And we'll all be watching.

Even as a part-time backup defensive end his first two years, Epenesa amassed 15 sacks.

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The player Ferentz compared him to, Adrian Clayborn, had four in his first two years at Iowa before an 11½-sack breakout season in 2009. Epenesa’s 10½ sacks last fall were the most by a Hawkeye since then.

Statistically and physically, Epenesa is far ahead of where Clayborn — one of the best pass-rushers of the Ferentz era — was at this point in his Iowa career. That's exciting.

“I’m not saying he’s Adrian Clayborn, but Adrian did some things … you just can’t teach a guy to do,” Ferentz said of a guy who also wore No. 94 and became a first-round NFL Draft pick. “And A.J.’s got some of that explosiveness; his ability to transition with the pass rush to keep an offensive lineman off balance a little bit.”

Ferentz’s answer, naturally, finished with a call for improvement.

"Adrian had a real knack for that, and I think we’ve seen the same from A.J.," he said. “And again, I’m really confident his best football is in front of him. Because he’s still really learning to use what he has."

There's a perception, fed by Iowa's coaches, that Epenesa struggles against the run. That narrative is showing up on NFL scouting pages, too. Ferentz was asked about Epenesa's run-stopping ability and, again, was calling for improvement.

He mentioned that Epenesa needed to be "aware of what he's doing. Developing a fuller understanding of how one thing affects another, that type of deal. It’s something all players go through."

One of Ferentz's last interviews in Chicago before heading home was with the Big Ten Network crew on live TV. They also asked several questions about the lone Hawkeye to be named to the league's 10-player watch list.

"My message to him will be just don’t try to do too much. Just be you and play the kind of football you can play," Ferentz said, "and everything else will fall into place."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.