Iowa football: Reese Morgan addresses A.J. Epenesa's snap count, 'selfless' defensive line

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

After an overpowering performance against Iowa State, A.J. Epenesa was his typically humble self. Rather than talk about his two sacks and forcing the game’s only turnover in a 13-3 Iowa win, the sophomore defensive end was more excited to discuss the love he has for his teammates.

Particularly, those along the defensive line.

They attend weddings with each other. They have dinner together every Thursday night.

When Iowa defensive tackle Matt Nelson (96) sacked Kyle Kempt on Saturday, his teammates (including A.J. Epenesa) were excited.

“You run into them going into classes,” Epenesa said, “and it’s like you’ve seen each other before. Whazzz-uuuuuuup!

"There’s no doubt in my mind we’re the tightest group on the team. Our friendships will last forever.”

It’s that type of chemistry that Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan sees as being a benefit to Epenesa’s development into the still-growing force he’s become.

While some want to question Epenesa getting fewer snaps than starting ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse, it’s a non-issue inside the Iowa Football Performance Center.

“We have such a group of guys that are selfless,” Morgan said during an appearance on our “Hawk Central” radio show that aired Wednesday night on KxNO (1460 AM) in Des Moines, “and really care more about the team than themselves.”

Epenesa played just six official first-half snaps against Iowa State; 24 for the game. Yet his impact was so great in those snaps, he was named co-defensive Big Ten Conference player of the week.

And he did it in his final game as a teenager. Epenesa turns 20 on Saturday, when Iowa hosts Northern Iowa in a 6:30 p.m. contest.

Morgan called curiosity about Epenesa’s snap count “radio talk” and pointed to the 6-foot-5, 277-pound phenom’s continued need to develop. Epenesa’s three sacks this season are tied for second in the nation.

Iowa’s starting defensive line features three fifth-year seniors in Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks and a fourth-year junior in Anthony Nelson. The group has been stout; Iowa ranks second in the nation in scoring defense (5.0 ppg) and leads the Big Ten with nine sacks.

“We have some veteran guys that really care about the other guys,” Morgan said. “They’ve been mentoring young guys their entire career, because when they came in as young men, they had somebody on our football team that looked out for them and taught them and showed them.

“And when you get that kind of an atmosphere and environment in that room, it’s special.”

Some other stuff Morgan discussed on Wednesday’s show:

Brady Reiff’s role on the defensive line should increase

Reiff, a junior defensive tackle, was listed as a starter in spring practice. But despite being healthy, he hasn't played an official defensive snap in 2018.

He was suspended in Week 1 for a summer arrest for public intoxication. And against Iowa State, Morgan stuck to a three-man tackle rotation (Brincks, Matt Nelson and Cedrick Lattimore). Reiff did play special teams.

“You base everything on how guys do in practice,” Morgan explained. “And we felt going into the (Iowa State) game that there were guys that had a better week of practice.

“Now this week, Brady has had an exceptional week and has been improving.”

Morgan likes a defensive-line rotation of eight players, especially against today's up-tempo offenses. He used seven against the Cyclones; look for Reiff to make it eight soon.

Praise flows for Morgan's younger linemen

The 19th-year Hawkeye assistant discussed a lot of the younger players on the defensive line. It’s an important topic, frankly, considering that group will lose at least three starters (maybe all four, if Anthony Nelson turns pro) going into the 2019 season.

Morgan sounded especially upbeat about the future of Daviyon Nixon. That should be music to Hawkeye fans’ ears.

Nixon is a big defensive tackle (6-3, 306) who initially committed to Iowa out of Kenosha, Wisconsin, but wound up at Iowa Western Community College for a season because of academics. While there, Nixon received an offer from Alabama — but stuck with the Hawkeyes.

Now, he’s red-shirting to work on his schoolwork. And it appears everything is going well, on and off the field. He would have three years of eligibility starting in 2019.

“He’s really going to be a special young man,” Morgan said. “In addition to being a good football player, he is really a fun young man to be around. He’s great in our room. Full of energy. You really like being around him. He’s going to be, I think, a dynamic player for us.”