IOWA CITY — All A.J. Epenesa wanted with the NFL decision process is an honest opinion, and we’re not talking a rando internet mock draft.
The Iowa junior already was being asked about making the jump to the league back in August. It’s probably why he only spoke after games this season. That was lining up to get really, really, really old for the Glen Carbon, Ill., native.
In December, when it was actually time to sort of, kind of, entertain the question, Epenesa said he just wanted a little truth.
“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.”
Epenesa must’ve liked what he heard from the NFL.
The 6-foot-6, 280-pounder posted on his Instagram on Tuesday that he will forgo his senior season at Iowa and enter the draft.
Let’s not pretend Epenesa wasn’t going to like what he heard. You saw it.
Epenesa spent most of his sophomore season as a pass-rush specialist, leading the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks. The quest for Epenesa this season was becoming a full-service, three-down defensive lineman. It worked.
Epenesa saw his snap count nearly double to 767 in 2019. He finished with 11.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. His two-year totals are 22 sacks, 31 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles.
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With the snaps piling up, Epenesa still managed to play his best football at the end of the season.
Here’s a list of the wreckage:
— On his 64th snap of the Minnesota game, Epenesa lined up inside and burst through the line of scrimmage for a near sack that fellow defensive end Joe Evans finished. On snap 65, Epenesa sacked QB Tanner Morgan and ended it.
— Epenesa earned Big Ten defensive player of the week in the season finale at Nebraska, collecting career highs in tackles (14) and tackles for loss (5). He also threw in two sacks.
— Epenesa earned defensive MVP honors against USC in the Holiday Bowl with 2.5 sacks and three QB hurries. It was the second straight bowl game that Epenesa wrecked for Iowa’s opponent. In the 2019 Outback Bowl, Epenesa ripped a sack, a forced fumble, a batted down pass and a QB hurry out of Mississippi State.
“He seemed pretty good to me,” Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys on Iowa’s defense. I think there’s a reason why he’s talked about as one of the top players in the country.”
Pro Football Focus numbers have Epenesa with 54 total pressures this season. Fellow defensive end Chauncey Golston was next with 27. Epenesa got pressure in 13.4 percent of his 422 pass-rush snaps. He also finished with 13 QB hits and 34 hurries.
“We put him in a situation the first two years where we tried to use his strengths,” defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said. “We talk about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. He had a strength for rushing the passer. There were other guys who were better at playing total defense, so we had the luxury of using him that way.
“Now (2019 season), he has to be that every-down guy for us.”
Most mock drafts have Epenesa somewhere in the teens of the first round. Clemson defensive end Dexter Lawrence was drafted by the Giants at No. 17 last year. He signed a four-year, $13.2 million contract with a $7.6 million signing bonus.
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Don’t ask how Iowa can replace Epenesa. Someone else will play defensive end next year. It could go a lot of different ways. Sophomore John Waggoner (6-5, 270) played 85 snaps this season and had a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Senior Zach VanValkenburg played 109 snaps this season. They will be in the mix to play opposite of Golston.
A couple others to keep an eye on: From a hybrid edge defender role, Evans came up with four sacks this season. Redshirt freshman Logan Lee (6-5, 251) pushed to the two deeps last August as a true freshman defensive tackle. He redshirted and went through bowl prep practicing at tackle and end. It might be a long shot because true freshmen mostly don’t see action on the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten, but maybe Deontae Craig (6-3, 235) can make some waves.
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