Iowa preps, commits earn national attention at U.S. Army All-American Bowl

Chris Cuellar

The state of Iowa sends a star football player every year or two to San Antonio, Texas for the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

This year two Hawkeye commits — Tristan Wirfs of Mount Vernon and A.J. Epenesa of Edwardsville, Ill. — were selected for the  all-star game, along with Iowa City West standout Oliver Martin. A full week of practice among the nation’s top prospects and Saturday afternoon’s game, which aired on NBC, gave players a much larger audience than anything they could get at home.

AJ Epenesa of Edwardsville throws the ball during a break at practice back in August at the Edwardsville Sports Complex.

A few observations from the recruiting fanfare and rankings hoopla of the 17th annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl…

Epenesa already elite at 247

Iowa commit and Illinois native A.J. Epenesa is certainly a blue-chip prospect, and the recruiting service that has picked him the highest is 247 Sports.

The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end boosted his stock with a strong performance in San Antonio this week. And NBC used 247 rankings for Saturday’s broadcast, pushing his No. 6 overall mark out across the country.

“I’d be shocked if Edwardsville five-star A.J. Epenesa doesn’t start as a true freshman for Iowa,” 247 Sports' Steven Wiltfong wrote Wednesday from bowl game practice, “giving (Iowa head coach) Kirk Ferentz and his program snaps and defensive end and defensive tackle.”

Epenesa is the top-ranked strong-side defensive end in the country, and looked tougher as a run-stuffer than a pass-rusher on Saturday. His high school defense used him as an end in a 3-4 scheme, but the son of former Hawkeye lineman Eppy Epenesa apparently flashed all his skills this week.

“Epenesa could develop into the best player in this 2017 recruiting class,” Wiltfong concluded.

Alamodome or Iowa City?

Iowa City West wide receiver Oliver Martin went 1,000 miles south to San Antonio this week, but couldn’t escape the orbit of his hometown.

NBC’s play-by-play announcer and color commentator on Saturday were former Hawkeye football players: Paul Burmeister, a quarterback from 1990-93, and Anthony Herron, a defensive lineman from 1997-2000.

Both were happy to discuss Iowa’s 2016 Gatorade football player of the year, and the most productive receiver in Class 4A history.

“How much pressure is it for a guy from Iowa City West to pick the Hawkeyes?” Herron asked in the second quarter.

Iowa City West's Oliver Martin (8) and Devontae Lane (6) high five fans in the stands Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, after defeating Cedar Rapids Washington in their 4A state semifinal game at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls.

Martin is a four-star receiver and the No. 70 prospect nationally according to 247, and has more than a dozen FBS offers, including Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Oregon.

Burmeister recalled meeting Martin on the Alamodome turf before the game.

“I said, ‘Hi, Iowa City West class of 1989,'” Burmeister joked. “He was a nice young man, very intense in warm-ups.”

Martin got a deep early target from Ohio State quarterback commit Tate Martell, but mostly made his impact on the field Saturday as a blocker.

Wirfs works in at left tackle

It’s tough to block the top pass-rushers in the nation. It’s even more difficult when you’re behind the No. 1 offensive lineman on the depth chart.

Mount Vernon tackle and Iowa commit Tristan Wirfs got plenty of playing time for the West team, working in behind Foster Sarell, a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 1 overall player according to 247.

Tristan Wirfs, Mount Vernon

Wirfs frequently faced Ohio State commit Chase Young to mixed success in obvious passing situations.

The 6-5, 290-pound tackle is a multi-sport athlete at Mount Vernon and figures to have excellent upside in college football.

Still in the spotlight

NBC made sure Hawkeye fans wouldn’t forget what they’re going to miss. Former running back commit Eno Benjamin was front and center throughout Saturday’s broadcast, selecting Arizona State as his college destination early in the second quarter.

The Wylie, Texas prospect decommitted from Iowa in October, very publicly deciding to take his four-star talents elsewhere. His personality may not have meshed with Iowa’s low-key recruiting tendencies, but it worked for NBC in commercial breaks and as he picked up an Arizona State hat at the selection table.

“(Benjamin) came in like he does TV production meetings every day,” Herron said.

Benjamin walked off the field after suffering a right leg injury on a second-quarter run.