Iowa football: 'Marked man' A.J. Epenesa dominates on film; good news for Brady Reiff

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There’s not a more valuable player on 14th-ranked Iowa’s defense than A.J. Epenesa, whether the statistics say so or not.

It’s been a silly narrative that the junior defensive end is struggling, even though he’s been limited to one sack during the Hawkeyes’ 4-0 start.

Epenesa’s impact is obvious when examining what happens in the trenches, a point that Iowa assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann accentuated on his Wednesday-night appearance on the Hawk Central radio show on KxNO (1460 AM) in Des Moines.

"There are a lot of things you can’t see unless you’re sitting in a film room," said Niemann, a longtime collegiate defensive coordinator who in the offseason replaced Reese Morgan on Iowa’s staff. "But he has been very, very disruptive."

If you have been watching closely (or reading DVR Monday each week), you’ve noticed all the attention that Epenesa is drawing and how it benefits other Hawkeyes.

Niemann pointed to an example of Epenesa drawing his usual double team against Middle Tennessee State, which left Chauncey Golston and Cedrick Lattimore in one-on-one situations near the quarterback. Lattimore logged the sack.

As a team, Iowa ranks third nationally in scoring defense (8.5 points per game), fifth in total defense (251.0 yards per game) and 10th in rushing defense (77.0).

So, while opponents are limiting Epenesa’s stat-sheet production, the Iowa defense is thriving.

Nonetheless, Niemann and defensive-line coach Kelvin Bell have been moving Epenesa around on the line — with stunts, even occasionally lining him up on the left side — to keep offenses guessing where No. 94, a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, might be attacking from.

“The disadvantage of him having all the sacks he came up with last year (10½) is he’s become a marked man from a protection standpoint,” Niemann said. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s been doubled up.

“I think A.J. would be the first to tell you the team success and defensive success is going to be more important to him than individual success. We continue to move him around and things like that. If people want to double him up, we feel like we’ve got several other guys that can make plays if that’s what offenses want to do.”

Niemann called Brady Reiff the "unsung hero" of Iowa’s defensive line.

So, it’s a shame that the fifth-year senior defensive tackle will miss his third consecutive game Saturday with a knee injury.

“He just played so well early,” Niemann said. “Can’t tell you the number of times we pointed him out (on film) for great effort plays.”

We probably haven’t talked enough about the impact of Reiff’s injury. It’ll certainly be felt Saturday at Michigan, but Niemann offered a positive update on Reiff’s recovery, saying he had been on the field this week during practice. It would be a big plus if Iowa could get him back Oct. 12 for No. 11 Penn State.

Daviyon Nixon and Austin Schulte have been playing expanded roles in Reiff’s absence.

"Really a rock-solid interior player for us," Niemann said. "Obviously it’s in all of our best interests, and his, to get him back out there as quick as we can."