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Hawkeye media day notebook: Epenesa's early impact, injury updates, freshman CB impresses

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Another Iowa football media day in the books.

Here are some of the top nuggets we observed at HawkCentral: 

Epenesa making early impact

The top-rated Hawkeye recruit of the last decade is already making his presence felt at practice and earned multiple mentions at Saturday’s media day, even though true freshmen are not made available for interviews.

Early reviews for defensive end A.J. Epenesa were positive from Iowa players and coaches alike.

Iowa quarterbacks Tyler Wiegers hangs out with teammates during media day on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.

“Defensively, all the young guys have been doing good things, and A.J. has been making some plays,” Iowa senior linebacker Ben Niemann said unprompted, “as expected, I guess.”

BORN HAWKEYE: Inside the life of mega-recruit A.J. Epenesa

Defensive line coach Reese Morgan deflected a question about the five-star prospect with a smile.

“Do you see A.J. playing outside or inside?”

“Yeah,” Morgan said with a laugh. “That’s a ‘yeah.’

“We like his athleticism outside. We like him inside because he’s got the most size…Certainly he’s got a lot of opportunity to contribute.”

The 6-foot-5, 270-pound son of former Hawkeye defensive tackle Eppy Epenesa has picked up plaudits for his athleticism and versatility, as well as his attitude since moving to Iowa City.

“The thing you like about him most is that he goes to work,” Morgan said. “He’s a humble kid. He’s a five-star or four-star recruit, I don’t even know, but he acts just like he’s one of the guys. He’s earned the respect of the guys with his ability, but also with the way he conducts his business.”

- Chris Cuellar

Half of the DL returns

Two starters on last year’s defensive line spent the spring banged-up, but declared themselves good to go with the season four weeks away.

Nathan Bazata (high-ankle sprain) and Matt Nelson (foot) have been participating in practices, one week into fall camp.

Bazata got injured during the Oct. 22 loss to Wisconsin and was never the same. His return is important, because he’s really the only experienced presence (24 career starts) the Hawkeyes have at defensive tackle.

“I’m not getting all the reps, they’re kind of just watching me,” Bazata said. “But I feel really good.”

Nelson, a defensive end with 13 career starts who could see himself rotating inside to tackle occasionally this fall, broke a bone in his foot on the first day of spring practice.

“Got it all taken care of, got healthy this offseason,” he said. “Should be good to go.”

- Chad Leistikow

True freshman rising up depth chart

Iowa’s going to need at least one true freshman to play cornerback this season. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker knows that it’s a thin position group behind Joshua Jackson, Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia.

So it was telling that the first name Parker mentioned Saturday was Matt Hankins.

“I always try to figure out who’s the guy that’s farther along, mature enough to go out there and play in a game and be able to help the team out,” Parker said.

Jackson later confirmed what Parker hinted at.

“I think Matt’s doing pretty good,” said Jackson, a junior starter. “He’s running with the twos.”

Hankins, a native of Lewisville, Texas, stands 6-foot-1, 175 pounds. Parker said Josh Turner (6-0, 180) and Trey Creamer (6-0, 175) are two other freshmen defensive backs that will likely be given at least a shot at playing special teams. And if injuries occur, those guys could rise up to be the Hawkeyes’ fifth or sixth defensive back.

“As long as you come in ready to play, grab older guys and just learn the defense and learn how to play, it’s not too hard,” Jackson said of contributing as a rookie. “Reps are going to get you better, but it’s just how you want to come out and take those reps.”

- Mark Emmert

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Thoughts from Wadley and Butler

James Butler officially introduced himself to the media Saturday afternoon and proclaimed he had one personal goal this year: “To win the Big Ten championship.”

A big statement from a big personality.

The graduate transfer from Nevada acted like a lifelong Hawkeye during the barrage of media-day interviews, beaming his braces-laden smile to crowds of reporters huddled around him. He arrives to Iowa City with plenty of hype, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said he’s been “really pleased” with Butler through six days of practice — that’s about as effusive as Ferentz ever is.

But if one thing was clear Saturday, it’s that Akrum Wadley is still “the guy” in Iowa’s backfield. He said he’s enjoying the daily competition with Butler, who racked up 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Wolf Pack last season.

“The best man’s going to get the job,” Wadley said. “Coach Ferentz is going to play the guys that’ll get the job done and put us in the best position to win. We’re all competing for each other. If (Butler) makes a good run, it’s love. If he busts through the middle for a 50-yard touchdown, I’m right there to help him celebrate.

“But as far as competing, we’re competing at the end of the day. When we get off the field, we can be buddy-buddy. On the field we’re still brothers, but we’re competing.”

- Matthew Bain

RELATED: Butler, Wadley are close friends despite competition

Where will Brian Ferentz be?

First-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s hope is to stay on the field as a play-caller, rather than be upstairs in the press box, during games.

That would be a departure from his predecessor, Greg Davis, who called plays for five years from the booth.

“I think there’s some real positives to either side. If you’re in the booth, it’s a more surgical approach,” Ferentz, 34, said. “A little less emotions are involved. And if you’re on the field, you’ve got a pretty good pulse on the game and a good feel for it.”

As offensive line coach, Ferentz has spent his entire Hawkeye coaching career on the sidelines.

“I prefer to be there as a play caller, but I’m open to both,” Ferentz said. “What we need to do is figure out what’s best for the team. And that’s for me to be in position to make calls without being overcome by emotion. And if I can’t do that on the field, I’ll move upstairs right away.”

- Chad Leistikow

LEISTIKOW: Brian Ferentz ready for the long haul, and criticism that comes with it

Snyder uncertain of return date

Iowa safety Brandon Snyder isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play this season after undergoing knee surgery in the spring.

“It’s one of those things where you can project all you want, but I just take it day by day,” said Snyder, a junior who would have started at free safety. “If I can, I can. If I don’t, then that’s OK, too. I want to be able to help the team and if I can’t help the team then I don’t want to be out there either. My goal is to help these guys as much as I can. I want to be like a third or fourth coach to these guys and try to give them all of my experience and all of my mistakes.”

Snyder said he’s at peace with his rehabilitation process, which is projected at a minimum of six months. But there was a time when the enormity of what he’s facing hit him, he admitted.

“You’re kind of  fired up to get back and then there’s that next little phase where you can’t get in to running yet. You have a lot of down time,” Snyder said. “We weren’t in a season or anything like that. So it’s just a lot of thinking. You really start to appreciate everything that you could do before.”

- Mark Emmert

Ferentz hopes 'lightning strikes twice' with Cook

With more than three months at the new position under his belt, Drew Cook said he feels like a tight end now — rather than a quarterback trying to play tight end.

“Summer was really big for me,” he said. “Kind of slowed things down a little bit. Got to run routes with the tight ends, get in the weight room. 

“The tight ends, I’ve gotten to know them really well and they’ve welcomed me in. That makes me feel really good. And they’re all really good at what they do too, so every rep I’m watching them because they do some great things that I could use in my games.”

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson slot in at the top of Iowa's tight end depth chart, and a bevy of talent that runs seven-deep sits behind them. It’s unclear how Cook will fit into that mix, but Kirk Ferentz had high praise for his new tight end’s summer development.

“I think he has a good future in our program,” Ferentz said. “Where it ends in September, we'll see, but I think he's doing a good job.

“I hate to rank guys, but he's up there pretty high on all-time attitude list. You could hand him a bucket of whatever, and he would say, ‘That's a great bucket, Coach. Thank you.’ One of those deals. He's that kind of guy. He's a team guy all the way. His dad was the same way. I hope lightning strikes twice.”

- Matthew Bain