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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says he likes kids that don't have drama Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s no secret that the Iowa football team may be losing two of its biggest stars one year early.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs — both juniors — are getting feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board and will have a big decision to make after the Hawkeyes face USC in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Junior safety Geno Stone is going through the same process.

But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday those are the only three players that have approached him about turning pro early. And that may be the best news Hawkeye fans get this month.

That means junior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, widely considered an NFL prospect, is apparently returning for his senior season. Ditto for Chauncey Golston, who is finishing up a strong junior season as the starter at defensive end opposite Epenesa. That will give Ferentz strong senior building blocks on each of his lines heading into a challenging 2020 schedule. It also will give whoever takes over at quarterback for the graduated Nate Stanley a little more peace of mind.

“We're a team or two away from getting those things compiled,” Ferentz said of receiving NFL grades for his three juniors. “Since we're playing so early, I think the discussions are going to come after the bowl. If we were playing in January, it might be a little more aggressive at this end. There's really nothing to talk about at this point.”

Epenesa and Wirfs came to Iowa with big reputations and have been regarded as potential first-round draft picks since the end of their sophomore seasons. They were both named second team Associated Press all-Americans earlier Monday.

Stone, a lightly recruited prospect out of Pennsylvania, has emerged as a hard-hitting ballhawk. He has started 20 games. His 65 tackles this season are third on the team and he is the only Iowa player to have at least one quarterback sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble.

Ferentz said he sat down Dec. 4 with the three players contemplating making a jump to the NFL. He said the process for getting feedback becomes more meaningful each year.

“The NFL is in a whole different mode, too. They've done evaluations already, whereas maybe two years ago they were scrambling around. We're in the process, like every year, of gathering information,” Ferentz said.

“The information now is a little bit more in-depth and probably accurate. The only variable with all this stuff is nobody knows how many juniors are going to come out.”

Ferentz spent six seasons as an offensive line coach in the NFL. He said he still believes teams would rather get players after four years of collegiate competition. But the rules allow athletes to declare for the draft once they are three years removed from high school.

And many of them are choosing to do so.

Last year, there were 103 early entrants. The Hawkeyes lost a record four players — tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, safety Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson. All were drafted. Hockenson and Fant made history by being the first tight ends from the same school to be taken in the first round.

Players have until Jan. 20 to decide whether to pursue the NFL Draft or return to college.

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is proud of his team that has won 18 games over the past two seasons and 46 over the past five, with the Holiday Bowl to go. Hawk Central

“You can't compare NFL football to any other sport. It's very unique. Unfortunately, most people don't understand that, people that are making those decisions sometimes. You get with and are playing against a bunch of men. It's a really hard, physical, long season,” Ferentz said.

What does he tell his players?

“We try to make sure players understand the agents are selling 'get to your second contract quicker.' First thing is get there. You’ve got to get there. Making the team is hard. Getting to the second contract takes a lot of ability, skill and luck,” Ferentz said.

“Let's say you get to your second contract, play a year. What's the difference between being 28, 29, 30 at the end of your career?”

But Ferentz said he doesn’t try to talk anyone out of their decision.

“If a guy is just itching to leave, they are better off leaving. It's the best thing for them. It's like recruiting, I tell every prospect, ‘I'm not going to make a decision for you. I'm not going to pretend that's my decision because it's not.’ Same thing with our guys. We just try to give them accurate information,” he said.

“They have to do what's in their heart. Our job is to make sure they have a good picture of what it might look like. All that being said, nobody knows what the variables are. How many guys are coming out at your position.”

For Epenesa and Wirfs, there will be very few at their positions who are as highly regarded. Stone would seem to have the most difficult decision.

If he returns, along with Jackson and Golston, Iowa’s senior class will look stout indeed next season.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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