Why Iowa? A.J. Epenesa is already a Hawkeye through and through
A.J. Epenesa walked out of the tunnel of Carver-Hawkeye Arena and heard the chants raining down on him.
They knew who he was. He was the freakish five-star defensive end that stood out whenever he walked into a room — or an arena. He was a 6-5, 240-pound sophomore with his family in Iowa City for a basketball game, visiting the campus so many hoped he’d eventually call home.
He had heard how passionate Hawkeye fans were from his dad, Epenesa Epenesa (AKA Eppy). After all, Eppy played on the Iowa football team back in the 1990s. Naturally, he raised his kids to root for the Hawkeyes. Fall Saturdays were spent in the living room watching Iowa football. Growing up in Edwardsville, Illinois, A.J. didn’t have much exposure to other Hawkeye fans.
Walking out of the Carver-Hawkeye Arena tunnel, he remembered what his dad told him about them.
“But I never really expected it to be like this,” A.J. said.
A year after he got his Iowa introduction, he gave the people what they wanted.
Epenesa announced his commitment to Iowa last Sunday, much to the delight of his family of Hawkeye fans.
To those not close to the Epenesa family, it might’ve come as a surprise. The Hawkeyes don’t have a single five-star recruit on their roster. In fact, the last five-star recruit to play for Kirk Ferentz was back in 2009.
That didn’t occur to Epenesa, the top defensive end in the 2017 class, until a couple months ago when he was watching SportsCenter and they pulled up a graphic of the then-top four teams. Alabama had a bunch of four- and five-star recruits on their roster, as did Clemson. Even Michigan State had its fair share.
Iowa, of course, had zero five-star recruits. The Hawkeyes don’t have a single four- or five-star recruit signed in their 2016 class, either.
That made no difference to Epenesa. He tried to keep an open mind when he was being pursued by the likes of Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly, but he kept coming back to the program he grew up with.
“Iowa stood out to me because you can actually see what they’re talking about,” he said. “They say they want a family-knit program and then you actually see a family-knit program at Iowa.”
The U.S. Army All-American saw that come to fruition when he took his official visit for the Pittsburgh game. Epenesa had visited Iowa City a few different times, but it was his first time at a football game since he was in elementary school.
Visiting as a recruit, he made sure to take it all in. Ironically enough, he wound up talking to Tony Moeaki, who was Iowa’s last five-star recruit. Moeaki, also an Illinois native, became a fan favorite during the 2009 Orange Bowl season and was eventually drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. He got to talk Epenesa about the Iowa football experience.
RELATED: Iowa’s way-too-early 2016 look
That, of course, was just the beginning of a memorable night in Iowa City. Marshall Koehn nailed a 57-yard field goal as time expired that gave the Hawkeyes a thrilling victory in the beginning of their 12-0 regular season.
Epenesa got swept up in the team’s Rose Bowl run. Nearly every game was watched from the Epenesa living room. As Ferentz garnered more time in the national spotlight with each victory, he made sure he didn’t cut off contact with his prized 2017 target.
“If anything, our relationship got stronger,” Epenesa said.
The same was true of Epenesa’s relationship with his high school coach, Matt Martin.
When Epenesa arrived at Edwardsville High School, he was already 6-4, 230 pounds. Martin had heard the stories about the kid who was dunking as an eighth grader and was even more menacing as a pass-rusher. Martin coached Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, so he knew Division One talent when he saw it.
A week into Epenesa’s freshman camp, Martin realized the hype was real.
It doesn’t take long watching Epenesa to understand why he’s so highly coveted. He models his game after J.J. Watt, and he even wears his No. 99. Like Watt, Epenesa wants to be able to play any position on the defensive line and get to the quarterback.
The challenge is that Epenesa, now 6-5, 260 pounds, doesn’t sneak by on the scouting report. Teams run plays away from him or they’ll triple-team him. His six sacks and 11 tackles for loss don’t tell the whole story.
“Sometimes what I think is so hard for a kid like that is because he’s so highly recruited, people expect him to make every play,” Martin said. “Offensive coordinators are not dumb. They’re going to try to avoid putting him in a position where he can make plays.”
But Epenesa still found other ways to display his rare combination of size and athleticism.
After he got to high school, he picked up discus throwing. Martin, who is also Epenesa’s track coach, said it usually takes a year of experience before kids learn how to properly throw the discus.
In half that time, Epenesa already became one of the top high school discus throwers in the country. His best toss was 194-3, which was a mark that only four Illinois high school athletes have ever cleared.
247sports released a study on how the best metric to forecast whether or not a lineman is worthy of a top-10 NFL draft selection is to look at his discus and shot put numbers.
Given the marks Epenesa already reached, it’s no wonder the college football powerhouses have become regulars in Edwardsville.
“We’ve had the who’s who of America come in here,” Martin said. “Ohio State, Alabama, USC, UCLA, Michigan…they’ve all been here. And I don’t blame ’em.”
They’ll likely continue to come to try and get Epenesa to decommit from Iowa. As a junior, coaches still have a full year before Epenesa signs on the dotted line officially. Decommitments, especially after an early commitment, have become commonplace in college football.
Epenesa has been around recruiting enough to know how that works.
“That’s just how some people do it,” he said. “But me personally, we’re going to stick with this one. I’m definitely going to be a Hawkeye. I’m not going to change that at all.”
In fact, he wants to recruit other four- and five-star prospects to come to Iowa. He hopes to break the mold for a program that’s historically been on the outside looking in at elite prospects.
Most kids that announce their verbal commitment can’t wait to fast forward to college. Epenesa, though he’s looking forward to his future at Iowa, isn’t anxious to jump to the next step just yet. He still has improvements he wants to make, experiences left to enjoy, and maybe even a few records to break.
“He’s going to play big-time college football and that’ll be special in itself,” Martin said. “But there’s something special about your high school sports and your legacy.
“He has the opportunity to leave a legacy here that may not ever be repeated.”