Iowa Football

Iowa's Big A.J. and Little A.J. locked in the eternal 'steel sharpens steel' struggle

Hawkeyes closed out spring with a standup defensive end experiment that's trying to get linebacker bodies in the game

IOWA CITY — A.J. Epenesa is “Little A.J.” Yep, the 6-6, 280-pounder is considered the “Little A.J.”

Every day in practice, Little A.J. gets in the three-point and takes the sledgehammer to “Big A.J.” Yep, offensive tackle Alaric Jackson is “Big A.J.” He’s 6-6, 320 pounds. He’s going to be the “Big A.J.” pretty much everywhere there are A.J.’s.

“‘Big A.J.,’ that’s what we call him,” Epenesa said after the Hawkeyes’ final practice of the spring Friday night. “Around here, I’m ‘Little A.J.’”

The battle between Epenesa and Jackson was some of the real thunder the Hawkeyes showed during Friday night’s practice. And you know what? It’s like that every day.

Iowa doesn’t flip defensive ends to the strong or weakside. Epenesa is anchored on the left side; Jackson will be in his third season as Iowa’s starting left offensive tackle this fall.

So, every day, it’s Big A.J. and Little A.J. And, yes, that is good-on-good and that is the whole point.

“Big A.J., I would say he’s the best pass-setting offensive tackle in the Big Ten, at least the best one I’ve gone against,” Epenesa said. “Going against someone as good as him, I feel like it’s going to get my game up.”

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Yes, of course, the everyday nature of this sounds like a ton of work. Sounds like a real grind. And sure sounds like the two big fellas might want to throw one another into the Iowa River.

“We know each others’ tendencies,” Epenesa said.

One of Epenesa’s favorite rush moves is the “stab club.”

“He doesn’t even shoot that left hand sometimes, he’ll just fake it,” Epenesa said. “I’ll go out there looking silly clubbing at nothing, because he doesn’t put his hand out there.”

Jackson said he thinks Epenesa is the better player.

“Every day is a grind,” Jackson said. “Him being versatile, playing inside and out and then speed, strength, power, he’s a great player overall.”

Yeah, it gets old. It’s probably the same for the other defensive end-offensive tackle matchup in Iowa’s practices. Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs was probably the most noticeable absence from Friday night’s practice. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said Wirfs was injured in a pileup a few weeks ago in practice and should be fine for summer workouts.

But as good as Wirfs is, defensive end Chauncey Golston was one of the most improved Hawkeyes in 2018, seeing 412 snaps with 3.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss.

Golston jogged behind the QB a few times Friday night. That counts as a sack in the spring.

The day-to-day, head-to-head nature of these DE-OT battles, it’s the stuff of coaches dreams. These are four high-caliber performers who also happen to be juniors. And, yes, Epenesa and Wirfs have already been asked about skipping their senior seasons many times.

Ego and pride come into play. They do their best to keep a lid on the tempers. Epenesa compared it to fighting among brothers.

“Fall camp and spring ball, it gets tiring going against the same guy every day,” said Epenesa, who led the Big Ten last year with 10.5 sacks. “A.J. and I have been banging heads for 15 practices.

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“I love the guy and frustrations get high, but we’re out here to get better and help each other get better. We both know that.”

A little tension is OK, even in practice and against a teammate. Coaches kind of like that tension.

“I think that’s OK,” Ferentz said. “Steel sharpens steel. Anytime you have good players playing against good players, it’s a good challenge. ... There are some interesting dynamics that go on this time of year or in the preseason, but it’s all healthy.”

This spring’s wrinkle is a standup defensive end. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace earlier this spring did say the defense was going to experiment with an end in a two-point stance. It’s not a 3-4 look, it’s just a standup defensive end, Ferentz said. Linebackers have filled that role so far. Senior Amani Jones was the lead on the experiment before he suffered an ankle injury. Friday night, redshirt freshman Jayden McDonald (6-0, 227) made some hits that left echoes. Ferentz threw walk-on Joe Evans’ name into that mix, calling the 6-2, 234-pound Ames native “a pleasant surprise” who has been “feisty and shown good energy and toughness out there this entire spring."

Iowa is short on defensive ends right now, with graduate transfer Zach VanValkenburg arriving in August. Also, Iowa is all-in with the 4-2-5, which puts a defensive back on the field and takes a linebacker off.

“The whole idea is to get the best guys out there,” Ferentz said. “It’s a matter of putting guys out there who have a chance to play, that’s the next step.”

Ferentz took it a step farther. He said he’s pretty sure who the starting four on the D-line will be. Beyond that, Iowa would love to have eight D-linemen in a rotation.

Even if those D-linemen are really linebackers.

“The bottom line is next year we want to get our best four and then our best eight on the field,” Ferentz said. “If it means it’s a linebacker, then it’s a linebacker. We’ll just kind of see how it goes.”

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

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