INDIANAPOLIS — Things got technical for A.J. Epenesa. He stood at the podium as a 6-5, 275-pound defensive end, which can mean so many things in the NFL.
The former Hawkeye's mission in the league won’t be all that different from the one you saw him excel at with Iowa. He’ll be paid to disrupt, track down and sack the quarterback.
He spent a lot of his 17 or so minutes Thursday at the NFL combine being asked from where he’ll do this in the NFL, inside or outside, 3 technique or edge. There also was some question on how. This is where it got a little technical. Epenesa knocked down all of the questions.
Finally, it hit someone to ask where he picked up a lot of this. Yes, of course, the University of Iowa, but, as you know, it goes a bit deeper with that for Epenesa.
You know the story about Eppy Epenesa, his dad and a former defensive lineman for the Hawkeyes under Hayden Fry. Yes, the D-line stuff did start early, Pee Wee football, to be exact, with the Edwardsville (Ill.) Tigers.
“My dad was coaching O-line and D-line for us, but he taught all of us on the D-line how to do a jab and swim move and a rip move where other coaches were just telling them to run forward,” Epenesa said. “My dad taught us from a young age to get our hands on people and then throwing them or getting off blocks. Since I was 9 or 10 years old is when I first started learning how to do moves.
“I was pretty lucky being able to have a mentor like him in the house all the time, someone who knows the game of football as well as he does. Anyone who has a football dad who played the same position is lucky to have coaching like that. It made it a little bit easier to start off.”
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The Epenesa you saw at Iowa was a physical marvel who took advantage of that fast start on becoming a D-lineman.
Over the last two years for the Hawkeyes, Epenesa had 22 sacks and eight forced fumbles. College stat keeping robs a lot of D-linemen of “disruption” points, as in QB hurries and hits. Last year, Pro Football Focus had Epenesa with more than 50 pressures, more than doubling any other Hawkeye.
The PFF numbers also showed most of Epenesa’s success came from outside rushes versus the bull rush. Most of the NFL scouting draftniks have pegged Epenesa as too slow to rely on simply sprinting past offensive tackles, but there’s also respect out there for the total package an NFL team will receive (unlike offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, Epenesa didn’t talk a lot about formal or informal interviews with teams here).
“I think there’s some things out there trying to say that I might be slow or not explosive and I just want to show that I’m not slow and not not explosive, I guess,” Epenesa said. “I want to show people that while maybe they have doubts about me, I want to prove people who doubt me wrong. I want to run fast, jump high, and show what I can do.”
A few times, Epenesa was asked if he thought he could make an impact in the NFL from an inside rush position. He did see a little of that with the Hawkeyes, mostly coming inside on stunts. His answer was “yes,” but he did concede his technique would be raw and he’s much more comfortable on the outside.
The combine reporters crowd noticed that Epenesa had just three sacks in the first six games and did finish with 11.5, cramming in most of his production in the back half of the season. Epenesa said he simply got better at dealing with multiple blockers.
“I was transitioning learning how to take on those double teams and chips and as the season went on you can tell I started getting better at it and started being able to be more productive, and it just came from me learning how to counteract those kinds of blocks,” he said.
Time will tell on where Epenesa falls on this scale, but he’s watched two current NFL defensive ends closely.
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“There are guys like Khalil Mack who’s the ‘long arm,’ and it’s something I’ve watched and detailed very closely and I’ve seen him throw some people around with just using his speed and sticking his arm out and getting in his chest,” Epenesa said. “One player I love watching is J.J. Watt just because he’s a bigger guy as well, he’s not your typical slim, shredded edge. He’s able to rush off the edge with speed, he’s able to rush on the inside and that’s what I want to be able to do, be versatile enough to be placed where the coaches think a mismatch is there or where I would fit best in the game.”
He characterized his departure conversation with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz as “he obviously wasn’t very happy, but he wasn’t angry.”
“Ever since I made that decision, they’ve been there for me every step of the way,” Epenesa said. “I’m training with (Iowa strength) coach (Chris) Doyle, the best in the business. And he’s been trying to prepare me for this moment to the best of his ability. He’s provided everything, just like if I was on the team. It’s just a matter of me taking advantage of the opportunities that they keep providing me.”
Different parts of his Iowa and family experience came out during the interview. Former Iowa defensive end and now Tampa Bay Buccaneer Anthony Nelson told him to bring snacks to the combine because there’s lots of hurry-up-and-wait and not a lot of food.
He called his mom, Stephanie, back home in Glen Carbon, Ill., Wednesday night.
“She didn’t really give me any advice. She was just checking on me and seeing how everything is going. I hadn’t really talked to her in a couple of days and I’m out here in Indy so she was thinking of me,” Epenesa said. “I was able to talk to her and my dad and they just told me to keep working hard and everything.
“They saw the measurements and everything released yesterday. I don’t know if they know what any of that means, but I know they’re proud of me.”
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