Iowa junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa declares for NFL Draft

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

After a dynamic three-year college career, one of the most powerful pass rushers to ever put on an Iowa football uniform is headed to the NFL.

Fresh off his defensive MVP performance in the Holiday Bowl, A.J. Epenesa made the expected move official on Tuesday morning with a post on his personal Instagram page.

Epenesa was a two-time first-team all-Big Ten Conference selection, the first defensive end to do so at Iowa since Adrian Clayborn — who also wore No. 94 and went on to be a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2011.

Such is the hope for Epenesa, who finished his junior season with a bang.

After recording 4½ sacks in Iowa’s first nine games, he logged seven in the last four to finish with 11½ for the season. The slower start was a byproduct of being double-teamed heavily and learning how to deal with those situations. He was a top backup as a sophomore, but he led the Big Ten anyway that year with 10½ sacks.

A.J. Epenesa (94) finished his career at Iowa as the defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl, after recording 2.5 sacks in a 49-24 win against USC.

Epenesa’s two best Iowa games of 2019 were probably his final two.

At Nebraska, he recorded an impressive 14 tackles — practically unheard of for a defensive end — including 4½ for losses and two sacks.

Then in Iowa’s 49-24 win against USC in San Diego, Epenesa’s third-quarter sack of Kedon Slovis forced the talented freshman quarterback out of the game (which was then 28-24), a turn of events Iowa capitalized on to roll to a win and 10-3 season finish.

For his career, Epenesa recorded 26½ sacks, far short of Iowa’s school record of 43, set by Jared DeVries — whose first name is the “J” in A.J., a deference to his former Hawkeye father Eppy’s dear friend — in four seasons.

But Epenesa will only have three years at Iowa, by choice. At 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds, Epenesa is widely regarded as a first-round talent at a premier position in the NFL.

His loss is a big one for Iowa, but fellow defensive end starter Chauncey Golston (47 tackles, 9½ for loss, three sacks) will stay behind as a fifth-year senior to pick up some slack. John Waggoner, Zach VanValkenberg and Joe Evans are among the returnees expected to see an uptick in playing time with Epenesa’s departure.