Iowa Football

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa still is running away from his 40 ahead of NFL Draft

But what will his drafting team ask him to do? And what if the Patriots draft him at No. 23? That'd probably be a solid fit

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) runs for USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) as he is trailed by USC
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) runs for USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) as he is trailed by USC Trojans tight end Erik Krommenhoek (84) during the first half of 2019 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2000. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It didn’t look terrible. No one ever looks like they’re in a hurry during one of the 40-yard dashes at the NFL combine. The whole idea is to relax and let your body do its thing.

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa did that. He ran a 5.04-second time at the combine in late February. Since then, that 40 time has been chasing him wherever he goes.

Just generally speaking, Epenesa’s draft stock went from solidly first round before the combine to still mostly first round, but with some second-round guesses. In every other year except for the COVID-19 year, players have some time to redo or explain something they didn’t like from the combine. Iowa players have always found the pro day track a much faster surface than the one used at Lucas Oil Field for the combine in Indianapolis. Well, Iowa didn’t have a traditional pro day. Teams are doing things via internet video technology.

Epenesa just hasn’t had the opportunity to show teams what a lot of us around here and certainly within the Hawkeye program have seen for three years.

“I think A.J. would’ve helped himself (with a pro day),” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in A.J. to just look at the film and don’t worry about anything you didn’t like or didn’t like at the combine.”

NFL scouts are all about filling up their notebooks about players. One trend Ferentz noticed this fall was the aggressiveness with which the NFL scouted Iowa’s underclassmen last fall. When Epenesa, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, QB Nate Stanley and defensive backs Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone were trying to help the Hawkeyes win last fall, NFL scouts were coming through the Hansen Center and checking out the juniors.

“This year we noticed some people you normally wouldn’t see coming to practice coming to our practices,” Ferentz said. “I’m very sure they were coming to look at a couple of our underclassmen. I think that’s a trend we’re going to see as we move along.”

It’s not so much about what the 40 said about how Epenesa can play football. It’s the requisite athleticism, that’s everything in the NFL from the Super Bowl to when the first pick is announced Thursday night. What kind of a baseline athlete is your team going to draft?

From there, it’s what the player can do in the league. You know the draft scouting on the internet is vast. You can find statements on either end of the spectrum for almost all potential first-rounders. You can attach whatever meaning to whatever statement you want.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah does have a practical conclusion from a 5.04 40 time: See how he handles dropping into coverage. It’s something he was asked to do at Iowa in zone blitzes, but just not a ton.

“I don’t know that I want him going in reverse and dropping into coverage,” Jeremiah said. “I just don’t think that’s going to be where he’s very comfortable. He would be one where I would say set the edge on early downs and then you could let him rush some inside, as well. So that’s where his versatility comes in.”

This isn’t a deal breaker for Epenesa. In fact, Jeremiah still rates Epenesa as a first rounder and has him going No. 23 to the New England Patriots.

Jeremiah talked about his experience with the Baltimore Ravens’ front office. One of the Ravens scouts had been with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick since 1991. They shared notes on what Belichick values at every position. For edge defender, it was size. Epenesa is good there at 6-5, 275.

“When it (the report) talked about edge rushers, it talked about his preference for size over speed out there and guys that can hold the point of attack in the run game and they can collapse the pocket, they’re power players, and that to me, if you’re drawing up a description of A.J. Epenesa, that’s who they were looking for,” Jeremiah said. “Now, that was 1991, a long time ago, but those Patriot defenses all seem to feature this type of a player, and then you add in to the fact that he played for Kirk Ferentz and Kirk Ferentz having a relationship with Coach Belichick, all this seemed like this guy was meant to be a New England Patriot. It just makes too much sense.”

It kinda does.

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

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