What the Buffalo Bills are getting in Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

A.J. Epenesa’s time at the University of Iowa was brief, but significant.

He came to the Iowa football program as a legacy recruit and the highest-rated recruit under Kirk Ferentz in more than a decade. He lived up to the hype and left (early) as one of the most powerful pass rushers to wear a Hawkeye uniform.

On Friday, he officially learned of his next football step. He was chosen in the second round, at No. 54 overall, by the Buffalo Bills.

Here is what the Bills are getting.

A.J. Epenesa, right, was a two-time first-team all-Big Ten selection and one-year starter at Iowa.

The positives

Dating to Epenesa’s early days in Iowa City, Hawkeyes defensive line coach Kelvin Bell was effusive in praising him for being “a five-star talent with a two-star work ethic.”

In other words, Epenesa’s humble mindset — which stems from the family-oriented, humble Polynesian culture influences from his father, American Samoa-born Eppy — recognized he was far from a finished product and welcomed coaching, including from older teammates. He arrived at Iowa with a lot to learn and a lot to prove, and it served him well during a dynamic three-year career with the Hawkeyes.

Epenesa’s 22 sacks over his final two seasons were impressive, especially considering he racked up 11½ as a junior despite repeated double- and triple-team blocks. Epenesa’s powerful hands and strength made his pass rushes must-watch theatre, as he often made left tackles — even good ones, like projected first-rounder Austin Jackson of USC — look silly.

Another underrated part of Epenesa’s career at Iowa was his nose for the football. He was taught sound fundamentals early from his father, and he was steady at hunting not only the opposing quarterback but also the football. Epenesa delivered game-changing sack fumbles in Iowa’s Outback Bowl and Holiday Bowl wins over the past two postseasons. He as a game-wrecker.

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 concerns

Epenesa’s slugging NFL Scouting Combine saw him run 5.04 seconds in the 40-yard dash. In subsequent weeks, he told the Register that he would have tested far better at Iowa’s pro day, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also noted that speed is not his top asset. Franchises that want to see speed rushes from Epenesa might be disappointed.

“At Iowa, that’s what we focus on, is the small details and fundamentals,” Epenesa said. “Not being someone that has 4.4/4.5 speed, it forces me to work on my fundamentals, because I’m not able to just blow by anybody. I’ve been blessed with length and size. That definitely helps.”

Epenesa had a slow start to his junior season and was limited in some of Iowa’s big games. Some pre-draft rumblings were about Epenesa’s lack of competitive fire, but that criticism is off the mark. Epenesa’s slower start to 2019 (he had 4½ sacks through eight games, then seven in the final four) had more to do with his inability to adjust to immense attention for the first time in his career.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

Despite being only a one-year starter, Epenesa was a two-time first-team all-Big Ten Conference pick. He had dynamic games during his career — at Illinois as a sophomore, when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown; a 14-tackle performance at Nebraska in his regular-season finale as a junior — but perhaps the most forecasting moments at Iowa came Nov. 16 at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa was leading No. 7-ranked and unbeaten Minnesota, 23-19, with 1 minutes, 52 seconds left. The Gophers had the football at its own 20-yard line. On the Gophers' first snap, Epenesa lined up at defensive tackle and flushed quarterback Tanner Morgan into the arms of teammate Joe Evans for a sack. On the next one, Epenesa powered past the left guard and engulfed (and injured) Morgan to seal the Hawkeyes' victory.

That sequence showed Epenesa's versatility to play both inside and outside at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, as well as his tremendous durability. He had played almost every snap of the game and played nearly 90% of Iowa's defensive snaps for the season, yet he still had enough in the gas tank to deliver winning moments.

Epenesa is a no-drama, powerful, well-schooled talent at a premier NFL position. He still has more improvement to make, still being just 21 years old. But as is his track record, he's as close a thing as there is to a sure bet of being a long-term contributor at the next level.

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.