Recruiting talk: Iowa's 2017 needs, when does A.J. Epenesa play?

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The ink is barely dry on letters transmitted Wednesday by the (so far) 24 signees of Iowa’s football recruiting Class of 2016, but the news cycle doesn’t stop for anything.

Iowa defensive end Matt Nelson, here hitting Stanford's Bryce Love in the Rose Bowl, got more playing time toward the end of the 2015 season when Nate Meier was banged up.

So let’s take an even deeper look forward at the Hawkeye program.

Recruiting momentum 

A positive shift in perception among prospects began 13 months ago when the Iowa Football Performance Center became move-in-ready. And it has only improved after a 12-0 regular season and Rose Bowl appearance.

“There’s more people interested in Iowa,” outgoing recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace said.

Iowa’s approach to evaluation embraced by Wallace, who was recently named linebackers coach, won’t change now or after the new guy is hired in a few weeks — finding high-character, smart, athletic, pure football players. Iowa is confident it can shape those perceived two- or three-star types into four- or five-star performers via the Chris Doyle development program.

QB Nathan Stanley epitomizes athletic Iowa recruiting class

The Class of 2017

The recruiting impact of the Rose Bowl will be felt in the next class, which will number around 16 prospects. For perspective, Iowa had secured 21 of its allotted 25 commitments in the Class of 2016 by the end of June.

And the ’17 class is already about 30 percent full, with five excellent commitments. Iowa coaches can’t talk about them for another year, but they’re confident that all five — centerpiece defensive end A.J. Epenesa and four in-staters in linebacker Jacob Coons, defensive tackle Juan Harris, defensive end Coy Kirkpatrick and offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs — aren’t going to stray from the Hawkeyes.

So with an estimated 11 scholarships left, Iowa can afford to more selective going forward. Quality over quantity.

“What you’ll probably see is us moving a little bit slower, because the numbers are less,” Wallace said, “and the candidates are greater.”

Hawkeyes already have strong foundation to 2017 class

How does Epenesa fit?

It’s a ways off, but Epenesa’s Jan. 17 pledge to Iowa over the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma and Notre Dame was seismic for the program. The son of former Hawkeye Eppy Epenesa is from a terrific family and checks his ego at the door, so he has the character Iowa looks for — plus all the necessary physical tools.

If Iowa’s new-media guys were to computer-generate a defensive end prototype, the athletic 6-foot-5, 255 pounds Epenesa would be a 100 percent match. Unlike some other programs that deploy specialized pass rushers, the Hawkeyes ask their left and right defensive ends to do it all — rush the passer, clog the run, hold the edge against the run and drop into pass coverage. Before Drew Ott got hurt, he was one guy Iowa had in 2015 that was elite at all of those things. Former Hawkeye Adrian Clayborn, a first-round NFL draft pick, would be a prototypical Iowa end, too.

Epenesa is open to red-shirting in his first season. The question will be, how badly will Iowa need him in 19 months? More on that next.

Examining the defensive ends

This position in 2016 could provide some preseason fan-base jitters like offensive tackle did in 2015, if Ott doesn’t get good news on his medical-redshirt application. (By the way, the offensive line turned out just fine.)

Redshirt sophomores-to-be Parker Hesse (6-3, 240) and Matt Nelson (6-8, 270) are the listed 2016 starters, and zero proven experience is behind them. Redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson (6-7, 220) is the first guy off the bench. The Waukee product needs to get stronger, and he will, but he could be Iowa’s best pure pass-rusher next year. The trick is to find a fourth guy for Reese Morgan's rotation.

Walk-on Sam Brinks of Carroll is listed as a second-teamer now, but Iowa brought in five Class of 2016 defensive ends, with Detroit teammates Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 260) and Chauncey Golston (6-5, 227) the most intriguing candidates. Lattimore could follow the path of former Hawkeye great Jonathan Babineaux — cutting his teeth on the end, and moving inside to defensive tackle later in his career.

Kirk Ferentz, naturally, didn’t bite on whether one or more rookie defensive ends could play right away.

“Realistically it's a little tougher for guys right on the line of scrimmage offensively or defensively,” the head coach said. “But if someone can come into camp and show us that they can give us something, even if it's situational help and special teams, those are things that we'll always consider."

If there’s no Ott, it’s clearly a position of immediate need. And how quickly the 2016 class develops will have a domino effect on how quickly Epenesa makes his college playing debut.

Key 2017 targets 

Iowa will start a junior safety (Miles Taylor) and two senior cornerbacks (Desmond King, Greg Mabin) this fall, so replenishing these ranks is the highest recruiting priority for ’17.

Iowa scooped up four guys it’s classifying as defensive backs Wednesday. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Lance Billings, Cedric Boswell, Amani Hooker and Emmanuel Rugamba — because of how proficient they were on offense in high school.

“If you turn on their tape, you’ll find them with the ball in their hand as much as they’re playing defense,” Wallace said. “That’s what we’ve got to do, is continue to find those type of guys that appreciate football.”

That’s what Iowa found in King three classes ago — and that worked out pretty well.

Hawkeyes' recruiting class of 2017

Iowa has landed five commitments a year out from the next football National Signing Day; it is expected to sign about 16 players in the class:

Jacob Coons, LB, 6-4, 225 (Solon)

A.J. Epenesa, DE, 6-5, 255 (Edwardsville, Ill.)

Juan Harris, DT, 6-3, 395 (West Union)

Coy Kirkpatrick, DE, 6-5, 260 (Madrid)

Tristan Wirfs, OL, 6-5, 280 (Mount Vernon)