College Football

Hawkeyes defensive line is something, something misfit toys

And it is officially OK to talk about freshman end A.J. Epenesa

Iowa defensive end A.J. Espenesa (94) closes in on quarterback Nathan Stanley (4) during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Espenesa (94) closes in on quarterback Nathan Stanley (4) during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Whenever Iowa’s defensive linemen want to make the “Island of Misfit Toys” T-shirts, they can go ahead and print them up.

At any given time during Saturday’s scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, this group went from conventional and players you knew from the last couple of seasons in the game to true freshmen and ends moving inside to play tackle.

Given the Hawkeyes strengths and experience levels at end and tackle, you could see this coming. After Saturday, now you have a better idea for how the D-line might look in 2017. Iowa is out of its comfort zone here, but, perhaps, it’s in a good way. Some of these young athletes don’t look like your conventional defensive linemen and that’s OK.

Iowa LB Josey Jewell

It can still work.

“I think we take pride in that, you know, the land of misfit toys,” junior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “We have a bunch of guys who, if you look at them, might not wow you. We don’t look really sexy in our pads, but we’re guys who are going to ge the job done.”

In pass rush packages, Hesse, a 257-pound end who’ll be a three-year starter this season, moved inside to tackle for the first time in his career. Junior end Matt Nelson played a ton of tackle. Nelson played so much defensive tackle Saturday that head coach Kirk Ferentz was asked afterward if Nelson is officially a tackle.

“Not officially,” Ferentz said. “We’re looking at him both ways. ....We’re weighing all of our options there. Like last year, we had three guys at each position who could play. I think we have that in one of the positions, now we have to figure out the other equation.”

Iowa has a lot of defensive ends and needs help at tackle, where, senior DT Nathan Bazata said, as many as five players are battling for serious playing time. Usually, when the Iowa staff has had sitting starters at a position, it doesn’t mess with them. What’s changed? Part of the reason why Iowa can try Hesse and Nelson inside is true freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa.

He’s not a misfit toy. He is a prototypical defensive end, at 6-5 and 270 pounds. He was a major disruption for the Hawkeyes offense Saturday, picking up three sacks and batting down a pass.

Really, this entire story should be about Epenesa, but we’re talking about a true freshman DE playing in his first public scrimmage. You want to tap the brakes because there will be steeper challenges. But then, hey, go with the flow. Give the freshman his due.

A lot of the Hawkeyes did.

“He’s impressed us,” Ferentz said. “He definitely belongs on the varsity. He’s one of those types of guys. He has no idea what he’s doing most of the time right now, but physically, he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Linebacker Josey Jewell has had his practice snaps limited. He’s a two-time second-team all-Big Ten linebacker. He’s in the circle of trust. He got to watch a lot of Epenesa and happily joined the party.

“He’s a freak,” Jewell said. “The dude’s athletic. He’s fast. He can do a lot of things. It’ll be fun to see him understand the defense a little more and let him run a little bit more, because he still has to think a little bit.”

Yes, even if you’re a mobile destruction unit, you still need to know where to be and what to do. OK, in the spirit of tempering expectations, here’s where we’ll leave things with Epenesa, a freshman with a ton of athleticism and potential.

He still needs to know what to do. And, yeah, that will come.

“If you don’t know what your responsibility is before the ball is snapped, that’s just inexperience,” Ferentz said. “That’s how you give up the big plays. ... He’s in the mix for playing time, we’ll see how far it goes.”

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