Hawkeyes can roll in recruiting momentum with Epenesa commit

Chris Cuellar
Five-star defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa is expected to sign with Iowa on Wednesday.

A.J. Epenesa is a four- or five-star prospect at defensive end, depending on which prep football scouting service you use.

And according to the experts, the Hawkeyes’ new high-profile commit can help bring more stars to Iowa City as the cornerstone of their 2017 recruiting class.

“A.J. is most definitely a recruiting tool,” Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said.

“Great players want to play with other great players. When you have a kid the caliber of A.J. Epenesa already on your commitment list, that’s something coaches are going to be able to sell on the recruiting trail.”

A 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior with scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC and dozens of others, Epenesa surprised college football followers on Sunday by committing early to Iowa.

The son of former Hawkeye defensive end Eppy Epenesa is a timely headliner for the program’s spring recruiting push. It already has a 12-0 start, divisional title and Rose Bowl appearance in its pitch.

“A strong season really affects the next class more than the current one, so you’d expect their momentum to be strongest with the 2017 group,” Helmholdt said.

“This just amps up what Iowa built this fall.”

Iowa has pulled in blue-chip prospects before under head coach Kirk Ferentz, peaking in recruiting circles with the talented 2005 class. Snagging a trio of Chicagoland five-stars — tight end Tony Moeaki and offensive linemen Dan Doering and Dace Richardson — Iowa’s class was rated No. 7 by 247Sports.

Developing prospects, winning in the Big Ten and coaching stability were key reasons the Hawkeyes had booming signees back then. Sound familiar?

“You have to have success on the field to get recruiting momentum, and Kirk has always felt it comes a class later,” said Tom Kakert, publisher and writer of

“Seven guys in the 2005 U.S. Army All-American Bowl committed to Iowa. Some of those guys worked out, some of them didn’t. That was historic and a huge moment for the program in terms of recruiting success. But I’ve learned over the years, you can win signing day, but it matters more what happens over the next four or five years.”

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After Epenesa’s commitment on Sunday, 247Sports bumped Iowa up to No. 8 in its 2017 team recruiting rankings. Four other three-stars from in-state are believed to have already committed: Madrid’s Coy Kirkpatrick, Solon’s Jacob Coons, North Fayette Valley’s Juan Harris and Mount Vernon’s Tristan Wirfs.

Many staffs across the country can’t survive recruiting ebbs and flows like Iowa has had, but Ferentz is still around and can be selective for 2017 after stocking up in 2016.

“It’s probably going to be a smaller class because Iowa’s retention is up, which is a good thing,” Kakert said.

“With what Iowa did this past year, they’re going to be able to sell that success to 2017 kids that they’ve been involved with for a while.

“In the past, it attracted mid-level kids and allowed them to get involved with highly-ranked kids and potentially get them. With a smaller class now, you can push that, too.”

Tight ends coach LeVar Woods led the charge on Epenesa’s legacy bid, securing what experts believe will be a solid commitment from the Edwardsville, Ill., native. How many more top prospects in surrounding states will want to join him?

“In recent memory, Iowa may not have been recruiting that high-level player with the same frequency it was 10 or 12 years ago, but it’s still Iowa,” Helmholdt said.

“Where else in the country are you going to get the kind of coaching stability we’ve seen in Iowa City?”

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The closest match Helmholdt can think of with Iowa’s recruiting resurgence is the team it battled in the Big Ten championship. They could be playing for the same prospects again soon.

“Michigan State was not recruiting at a very high level five or six years ago,” Helmholdt said. “They started to win ball games, started to win Big Ten championships, built momentum that carried into recruiting and now they’re regularly competing for the top players in the country.

“We could be seeing Iowa starting what Michigan State was doing three or four years ago.”

The Hawkeyes have landed their top recruiting target over a year before his signing day. The next step is utilizing his on-field skill and off-field status to keep the stars coming.

“When you get a guy like A.J. Epenesa, it makes other people notice,” Kakert said.

“Other players, especially on that side of the ball, are going to want to play with him because he’ll make everyone around him better. It’s already a strong start on the defensive line for 2017. Guys will want to be a part of the success that I feel will come with that group.”

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