Iowa sack master A.J. Epenesa stays a step ahead of the competition

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A.J. Epenesa on third down is as frightening of a proposition as a Big Ten Conference offense can face.

Case in point: The Iowa sophomore defensive end lined up against Wisconsin left tackle Jon Dietzen in the second quarter Sept. 22 at Kinnick Stadium. The Badgers had a third-and-8 from their 24-yard line in a 7-7 game with the sellout crowd on its feet.

Epenesa had Dietzen on his heels, and he knew it immediately. He quickly loped around the redshirt junior, taking him by surprise, and homed in on Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, arriving just as the football was released. It was ruled an incomplete pass. It could also have been declared a fumble.

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) gets to Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook just as he releases a pass Sept. 22. Epenesa was credited with a "hurry" on the play. He's had four of those, and another four sacks, already this season.

It was a sign of Epenesa’s athletic skills combined with his maturity.

“I used a speed move that time,” Epenesa said. “I know those guys are watching me, and I bull-rush all the time. I felt him leaning a little bit and I swiped his arms down and just tried to bend the corner and get to the quarterback as fast as I could.

“Setting people up is what pass-rushing is all about. It’s kind of like playing games and you’ve got to make people think the opposite of what you’re doing. Just kind of making the offensive lineman think a little too hard about what I’m going to be doing next. … I guess a lot of acting classes come in handy.”

Five-star recruit living up to his billing

Epenesa is developing the mental part of his game in his second season at Iowa. He is constantly scheming the best way to beat a blocker and get to the quarterback. He knows he’s in business the second he sees an overmatched opponent stop moving his feet and try to re-position himself.

“You know you’ve got them,” Epenesa said.

And, boy, has he gotten them this season. Epenesa has four sacks in four games, tied for the Big Ten lead. He has another four quarterback hurries (one on the Hornibrook play). Twice, he has forced fumbles.

Even more remarkably, all of this disruption has happened despite Epenesa playing on only about one-third of Iowa’s downs.

The Hawkeyes entered their bye week 3-1, with Epenesa being one of the top storylines of the first month of the season. The five-star recruit out of Edwardsville, Illinois, has lived up to the billing, building on a rookie year that saw him record 4.5 sacks and a team-leading eight hurries.

“He’s a better football player now than he was at any point last year,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

So what would it take for Epenesa to play more? Ferentz pointed to the quality of the two players in front of him — senior Parker Hesse and junior Anthony Nelson. He is happy with the rotation of those defensive ends, plus Chauncey Golston on occasion.

Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker indicated that it’s a matter of keeping Epenesa well-rested, so that he can play with abandon on the occasions when he is on the field. Parker acknowledged that Epenesa is getting better at defending the run, which was a concern last season. He is closer to being an every-down player.

“If we played him more, would he be as productive?” Parker asked Wednesday, anticipating the question that is on the mind of seemingly every Hawkeyes fan. “That's the thing you've got to really watch out. I really think the way we're handling the situation, and it worked out the first four weeks, is that 25, 26 reps a game has really been his potential to really make some big plays.”

A specious argument perhaps, but Epenesa goes out of his way to not make his playing time an issue. He has repeatedly said that he enjoys the rotation the Hawkeyes employ at defensive end. Epenesa has called it an “honor” to backup Hesse, a team captain.

Chasing quarterbacks, and greatness

“We have guys that can play,” Epenesa said. “So we try to rotate guys in, keep them fresh and, if they start getting a little slow, they start getting tired, put the next man in and we’re ready to go. Once you get in there enough and you run enough plays, you start to get a little fatigued. It happens to everybody. But me and Parker are for it. We’re there to support each other.

“I think whenever I start to practice better and class is going better, whenever those things are handled and done well, then football will come.”

Are those things going better? Epenesa had a quick answer.

“I think so. I think I’ve matured a little bit from last year to this year,” he said. “But I have a long way to go.”

Epenesa saw only 22 snaps in the 28-17 loss to Wisconsin. His near-sack of Hornibrook was as close as Iowa came to getting the senior quarterback on the ground, although Nelson was credited with a sack on a pass that was ruled intentional grounding.

Still, Iowa has 13 sacks, which is tied for 10th in the nation. Next up is a young Minnesota offensive line and a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday for Iowa’s first road game of the year.

Epenesa is hungry for more mayhem, however much he plays.

“It’s just something I kind of expect of myself,” Epenesa said. “Relentless pursuit of getting to the quarterback or relentless effort of getting to the backfield is just what great pass-rushers are all about. And that’s what I’m trying to be.”