Iowa Football

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs ask for NFL draft grades and thus begins the process

Hawkeye stars say the right stuff and will be around for the Holiday Bowl

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) tries to work off a block by Minnesota Golden Gophers offensive lineman Do
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) tries to work off a block by Minnesota Golden Gophers offensive lineman Donnell Greene (73) and grab running back Rodney Smith (1) during the fourth quarter of their football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A.J. Epenesa prepared for the NFL question and was totally ready. Tristan Wirfs knew it was coming, but was still nervous.

Wirfs’ hands were clasped and his fingers constantly moving. He was nervous talking about the prospect of leaving Iowa early for the NFL.

“I’m playing with my hands,” Wirfs said with a laugh. “I’ll put them in my pockets.”

Wirfs is sending the texts and emails from agents and whomever else through his mom, Sarah.

“I kind of feel bad putting it all on her, but she said she’ll handle it and not let anyone talk to me,” Wirfs said. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone during the season. I just wanted my focus on my teammates and each game each week.”

Epenesa and Wirfs, both named first-team all-Big Ten this week, said Sunday night that they have submitted their names to the NFL College Advisory Committee and are interested in being evaluated for the NFL Draft. The deadline for underclassmen to enter the draft is Jan. 24. The draft will be April 23-25.

“I’ve put in for feedback from the NFL, just like everyone does,” Epenesa said. “I'm looking forward to getting an actual opinion from an NFL professional, instead of just people tweeting or whatever. Everyone has their own opinion, but these will be opinions that mean something in my mind.”

Last week, Wirfs earned Iowa’s first Big Ten offensive lineman of the year award since 2014, becoming the eighth Iowa O-lineman to win the award. The award for offensive line play was first presented in 1984.

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Wirfs, a Mount Vernon native, started nine games at right tackle and three at left tackle. He has 32 career starts in three seasons. He was one of six semifinalists for the 2019 Outland Trophy.

Epenesa, a Glen Carbon, Ill., native, earned first-team all-Big Ten honors for the second straight year. He was named Big Ten defensive player of the week following wins over Minnesota and Nebraska. He leads the Hawkeyes in tackles for loss (13.0), sacks (9.0), quarterback pressures (nine) and forced fumbles (three). He also has three pass breakups.

“I thought the last couple of games he really played well,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Sunday night. “I thought in the Nebraska game he took off. He has the ability to do some things and he’s playing hard and he made some plays that really helped us win the game.”

This follows the pattern of players who’ll be leaving Iowa early and entering the NFL draft.

Offensive linemen Robert Gallery and Brandon Scherff elected to stay for their senior seasons. Gallery stayed, won the 2003 Outland Trophy and was the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft. Scherff won the 2014 Outland Trophy and was the fifth pick in the 2015 draft.

They’ve been the two who have stayed. Last season, the Hawkeyes lost four players to NFL early entries — defensive end Anthony Nelson, safety Amani Hooker and two first-round tight ends in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.

The NFL early entry gets into the air this time of year. It’s the time for it, with the regular season being over. With the four Hawkeyes last season, three played in the Outback Bowl. Fant announced shortly after the Nebraska game last season that he would be leaving and skipped Iowa’s Outback Bowl appearance.

Epenesa and Wirfs appear to be on this track. So, yes, obviously the answer will become much sharper after the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against USC. As for the bowl, Epenesa and Wirfs are in.

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“It’s not uncomfortable (to talk about),” said Wirfs, who last week became the eighth Hawkeye to earn Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. “It’s a realistic thing. Right now, I still want to give my full attention to my teammates.”

Wirfs mentioned that he owes offensive line coach Tim Polasek a player report on the USC defensive end he’ll be facing.

Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said Sunday night that he hasn’t asked for an NFL draft evaluation and likely won’t. The two who might have options are offensive tackle Alaric Jackson and defensive end Chauncey Golston. They have yet to comment on the topic.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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