He was a 5-star defensive end recruit with bloodlines to a B1G school that he verbally committed to in the middle of his high school career. He was part of a loaded group of defensive linemen, and he flashed All-American potential that made fans clamor for him to never leave the field. He generated enough pre-junior season NFL Draft buzz that made fans realize that in all likelihood, his college days were numbered.
So, who am I talking about? Nick Bosa or A.J. Epenesa?
In many ways, the two have lived in parallel universes without really knowing it. Their rises have been similar. Both seem destined for first-round selections, albeit in different draft classes and with potentially different final college seasons.
Both have already done something that’s increasingly difficult to do in this era of showcases and social media. That is, live up to their 5-star hype. Shoot, I’d argue that both exceeded their 5-star hype, despite the fact that both had essentially 2 seasons in crowded position rooms full of NFL talent.
The obvious difference between the two is that Bosa was a household name nationally entering his junior season. Epenesa, who’s already one of the more beloved Hawkeyes of the Kirk Ferentz era, is going to need to put together a banner junior season to get the type of draft hype that Bosa’s getting now.
Don’t be surprised when that happens.
Consider that my way of saying, yes, I expect Epenesa to light it up as a junior. I won’t be surprised if and when he earns All-America honors and becomes the top defensive lineman prospect in the 2020 draft class (the 247sports Big Board has Epenesa as the No. 6 overall player).
Usually it’s a pretty good sign when a sophomore leads the B1G in sacks (10.5), he ranks second in the B1G in forced fumbles (4) and he’s No. 4 in the B1G in tackles for loss (16.5). It’s usually an extraordinary sign when that type of production comes from a sophomore.
Have I mentioned yet that Epenesa hasn’t started a college game yet?
You wouldn’t know it based on his production. In fact, line it up next to Bosa’s first 2 seasons and you’ll see just how impressive the Iowa defensive end has been:
I included the starts stats in there not to show that Bosa had more opportunities, but rather how dominant they both were as basically backup underclassmen. I’m not sure what the total snap breakdown was, but I bet it was pretty similar during their sophomore seasons. Still, Bosa was the B1G Defensive Lineman of the Year and Epenesa led the conference in sacks.
That’s been the most impressive thing about both. It’s the efficiency. Both maximized their opportunities so well, and maybe part of that was due to the talent around them on the defensive line.
Bosa watched 3 of his fellow defensive end teammates get drafted last year, yet even as the new focal point of every scouting report, he still was on a tear to start his junior season before his injury. Epenesa will watch Iowa’s entire starting defensive line move on, and he’ll see more attention than he has at any point in his career.
Does anything suggest that Epenesa won’t blossom like Bosa did to start his junior season? Nope.
Sort of lost in the shuffle of Epenesa’s “backup” role was his development from a technical standpoint. Kirk Ferentz wanted the technique to catch up with the athleticism. The humbleness of how the 6-5, 277-pound defensive lineman approaches his craft is something that Ferentz appreciates.
That’s the thing that’s going to allow Epenesa to continue to rise. It’s not just that he’s a freakish athlete (he set the Illinois state shot-put record and if you haven’t seen him throw down a dunk on the hardwood, you’re missing out). It’s that he’s a 5-star, All-American talent with a true blue collar attitude.
This is the same kid who committed to Iowa after his sophomore season, and despite the constant attention in the recruiting world as a 5-star kid, he abided by Ferentz’s rule of not taking unofficial visits elsewhere. When he got to Iowa, he never raised a stink about not starting a game, even when his production started to skyrocket last year.
Maybe Epenesa’s numbers won’t be quite as impressive as they were last season. Or perhaps like with Bosa, an injury will derail what’s likely his last collegiate season. That’s obviously the worst-case scenario for an Iowa team that underwent a major facelift up front.
But as long as he’s healthy, Epenesa will be the face of the Hawkeyes. Like Bosa, he could become the face of the B1G. It wouldn’t even surprise me if Epenesa threw himself into the conversation as the best overall player in college football in 2019.
You could do a whole lot worse than following Bosa’s path to stardom. Epenesa is further along that path than people realize.