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Leistikow: Fittingly, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa surrounded by family as NFL Draft arrives

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Family has always been at the heart of A.J. Epenesa’s life story.

One of the most dominant pass rushers to ever wear an Iowa football uniform comes from humble roots. His father, the youngest of seven children, moved to the U.S. from a poor family in American Samoa, dreaming of something bigger for his future sons and daughters.

Now that long-awaited moment is here. Even if it isn’t exactly how the Epenesas envisioned it. The global COVID-19 pandemic has turned the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, into a coordinated event of video streams. America’s top football prospects will be at home, rather than under the fountains of the famed Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas as originally planned.

“My brothers and sisters have never seen anything like this,” says Eppy Epenesa, A.J.’s well-known father to Hawkeye fans as a former Iowa defensive lineman in the 1990s under Hayden Fry. “So, I was planning to get (them) together.”

More:The latest on coronavirus in Iowa

A.J. Epenesa played some of his best Iowa football down the stretch of the 2019 season. He hopes that his film speaks volumes when Thursday's first round of the NFL Draft takes place.

He had pledged to fly two sisters to Vegas from “the island,” as he calls it, of American Samoa (a small U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean). Two living brothers (Eppy’s oldest brother is deceased) and a sister live in California; they were planning to venture to Vegas, too, for an unforgettable family celebration.

While different, the upcoming party will be packed with meaning and joy. A.J. Epenesa is expected to be a first- or second-round pick and could command a rookie contract worth eight figures. Instead of taking a short Bellagio boat ride to shake hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Epenesa will be seen by America from his parents’ living room in Glen Carbon, Illinois.

Dad, Mom (Stephanie), his older sister (Samantha) and younger brothers (Eric, an Iowa walk-on commit; and Iosefatu) will be by his side; so will his grandfather (Stephanie’s dad), who lives nearby.

“It’s not going to be a huge get-together, obviously, with everything going on. But it’s going to be the people who are most important,” A.J. Epenesa tells the Register. “So, it’ll be amazing. Whenever my name’s called, we’re going to have a good time and appreciate it.”

Epenesa’s Iowa career was short but sensational.

And it’s why he says he has given himself permission to someday have a Tigerhawk tattoo inked on his imposing, 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame.

“I think I am going to get (the tattoo) eventually,” he says. “You’ll definitely see it. It’ll be dope.”

That tattoo intent also explains what compelled him to leave the Hawkeyes after his third year of school (the minimum college service time required to declare for the NFL Draft). He made his plans known in mid-January, a few weeks after earning defensive MVP honors in Iowa’s 49-24 Holiday Bowl domination of USC.

Epenesa says his father told him that he couldn't get a Tigerhawk tattoo until he became an all-Big Ten player — first team, to be specific — as a Hawkeye. Well, he did that. Twice. As a sophomore backup (when he had 10½ sacks while playing part-time, as 2019 fourth-round NFL Draft pick Anthony Nelson and mainstay Parker Hesse absorbed offensive-line focus); and as a junior superstar (when the defensive end logged 11½ while playing nearly 90% of Iowa's defensive snaps, despite weekly double- and triple-team game plans from opponents).

In Epenesa’s mind, he had accomplished what he came to his dream school to accomplish. He was a second-team AP all-American, even though most of his junior production came late in the season (seven sacks in the final four games, and a legendary 14-tackle performance against Nebraska in the regular-season finale).

“Yes, I could have stayed and possibly became a consensus all-American and all those things,” Epenesa says, “but it also could have been different. The doubles and triples might have been even worse. If I stayed, was it really going to improve my stock? The final decision was (that) I think it was time. My family and I were ready to take that next step and pursue the NFL.”

On Jan. 14, when he posted his Iowa farewell on Instagram, he was viewed as a certain first-round pick. But things have changed. He certainly didn't envision what these past 4-6 weeks have become, as America has become paralyzed by COVID-19.

Instead of jet-setting from Boston to Los Angeles to Seattle to Dallas to visit the NFL’s big bosses and franchises, Epenesa has been running hills in his hometown, working out in a local gym (thanks to his father's connections) and racing on the streets — with mailboxes marking the start and finish lines — with his skinnier, younger brothers.

“It’s like the old-school way we used to race on the island,” Eppy interjects, “from light poles to light poles.”

From left, the Epenesa family: Stephanie, Andrew Jared (A.J.), Samantha, Iosefatu, Eric and Eppy. This photo was taken after the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

Sure, there are still phone calls and video conferences with NFL teams. And Epenesa is an extremely engaging, magnetic, deferential 21-year-old in a hulking, pass-rushing package. But electronic interactions limit what his NFL suitors can absorb.

“I wanted to take part in all the visits and do all the workouts at Iowa,” Epenesa says. “All the things that every other draft has done. It is disappointing that the 2020 draft will be known as the coronavirus draft.”

Don’t misunderstand Epenesa’s comments. He realizes the virus is bigger than football. But his frustration is real, considering the perceived setback he endured at the NFL Scouting Combine. The buzz word about his performance in Indianapolis in late February, after his 5.04-second sprint in the 40-yard dash and other so-so testing, was "sluggish." And it seemed to cool his status as a top-15 pick.

But no worries, he thought then. He would have Iowa’s pro day about three weeks later.

Until he didn’t.

“It was upsetting, just because pro day my numbers would have been significantly better than at the Combine,” Epenesa says. “I know that for a fact. I had tested really well in Iowa.

“It would have been a good opportunity to improve my numbers and just put those to rest and bring into the light what I can actually do.”

So … will A.J. be picked on Thursday or Friday?

Sure, Iowa's 21st-year head coach is going to favor his guys. But Kirk Ferentz also knows the NFL, having coached there for six years (including with Bill Belichick) and having created an Iowa-to-NFL pipeline that is a hallmark of the Hawkeye program.

And Ferentz sees Epenesa similarly as he did another No. 94, about 16 months ago, while scouting Mississippi State ahead of the 2019 Outback Bowl. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was that kind of force for the Bulldogs then. And even with Simmons' personal baggage and a torn ACL (which occurred after the bowl game), he was chosen No. 19 overall by the Tennessee Titans. Ferentz thinks Epenesa — who has all of the dominance and none of the baggage — is an obvious first-rounder, too.

“It’s as simple as this for me. When you (prepare) for a team … there are certain players you better be fully aware of what they’re doing, where they’re at and what’s going to happen when the ball’s snapped,” Ferentz says. “I think about Simmons last year from Mississippi State.

“I would imagine if you’re playing us, if you’re looking at Epenesa, you’re saying the same thing.

“What A.J. does on film, you can’t teach. He has some really unique skills and abilities.”

Yet for some reason, Epenesa has slipped into the second round of many projections as draft day nears. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., for the first time, has dropped Epenesa out of his first round. And Kiper makes his analysis clear: His mock drafts are shaped by what high-placed NFL decision-makers say confidentially, not his opinions.

Epenesa, as you might imagine, takes issue with those who knock his speed off the edge. Not because they're wrong. But because speed isn't his tool of domination.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been considered a speed guy in my entire life,” he says. “Since I’m not a speed guy, I’m able to play to my strengths and use my fundamentals and coaching that has been drilled into me since I was young.”

Anyone who watched Epenesa over his durable, 39-game Iowa career knows he accumulated 26½ sacks in three years with an overpowering attack. One blocker could rarely contain him.

Epenesa was a difference-maker from Game 1 (when he sacked Wyoming’s Josh Allen in his first college appearance) to Game 39 (when he injured talented USC quarterback Kedon Slovis in the Holiday Bowl’s pivotal moment). While analysts drop his name down draft boards, Epenesa hopes the COVID-19 layoff forces teams to focus on the biggest factor when evaluating prospects.

Iowa junior right end A.J. Epenesa reacts after sacking USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis in the second quarter during the Holiday Bowl on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, at the SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

The game film.

Which, for Epenesa, is terrific.

“I know there’s been some people saying I’m going to fall out of the first round, and in all honesty, nobody knows,” Epenesa says. “Obviously, I would love to be able to say I’m a first-rounder. That’s something that nobody can ever take away from me.”

The financial difference between being the 16th pick (as many initially projected him to go with the Atlanta Falcons) and an early second-rounder is about $14.6 million over four years (per Spotrac.com) vs. roughly $8 million.

A smart franchise will snap him up with no regrets.

“I need one team to take a shot and an opportunity with me. And they’re going to get what they see,” Epenesa says. “They’re going to get a football player who makes plays and someone who enjoys playing the game.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.