Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Iowa Football

Big Ten media days may be only thing A.J. Epenesa misses this season

Iowa junior defensive end phenom is kept from the media horde in Chicago

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) sacks Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) in the Hawkeyes' 42-16 win at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., on Oct. 13, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) sacks Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) in the Hawkeyes' 42-16 win at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., on Oct. 13, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CHICAGO — It’s too hot for outrage over small things.

The fact Iowa didn’t include junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa among the three players it brought to the Big Ten’s football media days event here shouldn’t make anyone’s blood boil. It’s just a funny/peculiar thing to talk about for a moment, then forget.

Epenesa is on just about everyone’s preseason All-America lists, was the only Hawkeye on the Big Ten’s 10-player preseason honoree list, and is in about every Top 10 of 2020 NFL mock drafts.

He is well-spoken, personable, gracious — everything Iowa could want as an ambassador from one of its most prominent representatives. He’s also a player.

What Epenesa did to poor Illinois last November in Champaign was merciless. With 13:42 left in the second quarter and Iowa up 14-0, he knocked the ball from Illini running back Ra’Von Bonner, scooped it off the turf, and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.

On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Epenesa sacked Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush for a 5-yard loss. The Hawkeyes stopped Illinois on downs, then Epenesa blocked a punt and Iowa recovered the ball on the Illini 11. One play later, it was 28-0 on the way to 63-0.

Downstate Illinois native Epenesa had left the Illini loopy. What a story, this guy. It just wasn’t told this week in Chicago. Odd.

Besides senior quarterback Stanley — an obvious choice — Iowa brought senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia and junior running back Toren Young here. Alaric Jackson, a junior offensive tackle who could be in the All-Big Ten discussion come November, also stayed home.

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Yet, Iowa was happy to send media an email this week noting that Jackson, Epenesa, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and kick-returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette got preseason All-America honors from something called CollegeFootballNews.com.

That Epenesa wasn’t showcased here was “nothing personal,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Friday, adding “A.J. hasn’t started a game.”

He went on to call Epenesa “a tremendous young guy” and “an unbelievable teammate.” He meant it.

Young has three career starts and is in a multiplayer battle to get carries this fall. Iowa’s staff and players clearly like and respect him. This is his third-straight year on the squad’s leadership committee. He is the only non-senior on that 19-player group this year and was the only sophomore on it a year ago.

He also is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.

“I just try to lead by example,” Young said here Friday, “be everything Coach Ferentz says he wants in his players.

“I think of it as I have young players looking at me all the time. I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to do the right things.”

Does that make Young a feel-good story for the media mopes in Iowa? Darn right. Does it make him great material for the mopes corps of Lansing or Lincoln or Chicago? Not until he becomes a feature back who has led the Hawkeyes to glories.

Meanwhile, the Iowa sports information staff sent an email Thursday to media announcing an Iowa running back was on the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list. That was Mekhi Sargent, who led the Hawkeyes in rushing yards last season.

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On Friday, Iowa trumpeted the news senior Nate Wieting was among those on the Mackey Award preseason watch list. That award is for the nation’s top tight end. Wieting has three career receptions.

Iowa had a tight end last year who everyone projected as a candidate to have a big junior year, which he did. That was Noah Fant, named first-team all-conference by the Big Ten’s coaches after the season. Fant wasn’t brought to Chicago for last summer’s league media days.

“Certainly we consider (Fant) to be one of our best,” Ferentz said here last year, “and hopefully he’ll be here next year at this time with us.”

Fant is with the Denver Broncos.

Friday, Ferentz said this about Epenesa: “Hopefully, he’s standing with us here next year.”

He will be, in spirit. In body, he’ll be getting ready for his first NFL training camp. The media in his pro city will enjoy getting to know him.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.