A.J. Epenesa was surprised by how much he played as a Hawkeye freshman, but acknowledges there's still much to learn Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The five-star recruit stood in front of a crowd of reporters and, with quiet determination, turned every question about himself into an answer about the Hawkeye football team.
“Without the older guys … I don’t think I would have played nearly as much,” sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa said during the first media day he’s been able to participate in. “The coaches help you, but they’re also coaching other people. And having the older guys … giving you their knowledge from their five years of experience, that’s about as good as coaching gets sometimes because they’re living it at that moment with you.”
Epenesa arrived last summer as the most-hyped Iowa recruit in recent memory. You would never know that from talking to him, which reporters were able to do for the first time Friday on the turf of the team’s indoor practice facility.
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Epenesa took every opportunity to praise Hawkeye defensive linemen Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson (aka “the older guys”). He said repeatedly that he is still learning the nuances of the defense, a process he expects to linger into eternity.
“I wasn’t really expecting myself to play as much as I did,” Epenesa said of a freshman season in which he was used primarily as a pass-rush specialist and responded with 4.5 sacks and a team-leading eight quarterback hurries. “I think the coaches saw my ability and how hard I’ve been working.
“Overall, I did pretty decent. But I know there’s a lot of things I have to get better with.”
Five-star recruits, as Epenesa was coming out of Edwardsville (Ill.) High School, are rarely seen in Iowa City. So it was hard to know what to expect when interviewing one. But this wasn’t it.
“I don’t really like talking about myself,” Epenesa told the Register at the tail end of the media session, when he was the last Hawkeye left on the field. “I like to talk about others and give them praise.”
Eppy Epenesa, A.J.’s father, left his island home to come play defensive line for Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry in the 1990s. It is the reason A.J. grew up an Iowa fan, his first jersey a Tim Dwight No. 6 (although there was no name on the back). It is why A.J. turned down a bevy of other scholarship offers to come to Iowa.
And it may explain why A.J. is so insistent on spreading credit to all of his teammates instead of claiming it for himself. Eppy Epenesa is Polynesian, and that heritage runs thick through A.J.’s blood. Polynesia is Greek for “many islands.” A.J. seems to exemplify better than most that no one life can be contained on a single speck of land.
“Respect and love can kind of achieve more than being an aggressive, demanding type of person,” A.J. Epenesa said when asked what part of his Polynesian culture he most wanted to share with his new family and friends in Iowa. “If you show passion for what you do, that can help you achieve what you want more than being greedy and selfish.”
This is deep stuff — much more than you typically get from a media day interview. But it’s also what Epenesa seemed to want to talk about most.
Yes, he’s aware that he has quickly become a fan favorite. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off Epenesa’s No. 94 when he runs onto the field because, more often that not, his path leads directly to the opposing quarterback.
Epenesa appreciates the love from the Hawkeye faithful. But …
“Sometimes it gets a little bombarding outside of the games where I just want to go see my family. They help me stay level-headed,” he said. “I like to talk and I like to have fun, but I do like to keep to myself. I like to have close friends and I think I’ve made really good friends out of the defensive linemen that are here. That was one of the things I was pushing for.”
Epenesa is up to 278 pounds now, some 16 more than when he arrived last summer. He’s still listed as Hesse’s backup at right defensive end, but his playing time is due to increase.
“There’s going to be a rotation. He’s going to play on first and second downs, no question,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said of Epenesa.
“He’s definitely more comfortable in what he’s doing and understands the defense a heck of a lot better than he did last year. I’d like to see a little bit more of him.”
“Limit the mental errors,” Parker said.
Epenesa agreed with that assessment. He’s trying to focus on reading the entire offense when he lines up now, instead of just the poor guy across from him trying to keep him out of the backfield.
"I’m just one piece of the entire team and I think I’m going to do my bit to help the team overall,” Epenesa said is the goal of his second year as a Hawkeye.
“I’ll never technically ‘arrive.’ It’s just a long process.”
And with that, Epenesa walked away to conduct one final interview.
There was no need to eavesdrop. Epenesa had already said everything, and nothing, about himself.