Iowa Football

For Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, knowledge is power

The junior defensive end could see as many as 200 more snaps in 2019, does that interest you?

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) returns a fumble 19-yards for a touchdown during the second quarter of their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) returns a fumble 19-yards for a touchdown during the second quarter of their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Hawkeye fire department doesn’t ask questions. It sees the fire and it runs straight into it.

This particular fire happened in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl. On a first down from Mississippi State’s 48, MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald dropped a 51-yard bomb to wide receiver Stephen Guidry. First down Bulldogs at the Iowa 1.

Hawkeyes had a 24-19 lead. There were about 13 minutes left in the game.

During the next three downs, Iowa’s veteran defensive line showed everyone exactly what it was made of.

First, Fitzgerald tried a QB read option. The Bulldogs actually tried this all three downs. Defensive end Anthony Nelson stopped the first one for a yard loss. Nelson and fellow end Parker Hesse stopped Fitzgerald for a yard loss on second down. Third down was a no-gain when Fitzgerald ran into D-tackle Matt Nelson.

The camera focused on Hesse early during this sequence. It kind of looked like he was smiling. Remember the Cubs’ Kris Bryant making the last out of the 2016 World Series? Smiling or straining to make the play? Or both.

Sophomore sensation A.J. Epenesa wasn’t on the field for this series. He will be this season.

“Protege status” has changed to leader/spokesman type for Epenesa. Let’s do the raw math on this: Hesse played 589 snaps last season. Anthony Nelson played 611. Epenesa, mostly a pass-rush specialist who did happen to lead the Big Ten in sacks, played 412.

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The math says you might get as many as 200 more Epenesa snaps this season. Does that sound good to everyone?

Epenesa is here for it.

“I’m excited, I’m excited,” said Epenesa, whose 10.5 sacks last season were the most for a Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn had 11.5 in 2009. “I wanted to be on the field more. That’s how every player who wants to be good at the game, they want to be on the field. I’ve said it before, I was waiting for the moment and my time’s coming.

“It’ll be here before you know it.”

Those three veteran defensive linemen who made the plays in that field goal stand — Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson ... what would Epenesa take from their game and add to his?

It’s not so much the answer, it’s more of the way that veteran group helped introduce him to the game. But the answer says a lot, too.

“I literally said something like this to my teammates the other day,” Epenesa said. “If I could create my perfect self ...

“I’d take Parker’s effort and ‘want-to,’” Epenesa said. “Everyone knows Parker’s effort was the greatest anyone could every ask for. Anthony Nelson’s technique and fundamentals, he’s just the most fundamental and technically sound player I know. Matt’s size, he’s obviously a big dude.

“I’d mix in my athleticism. If I could create that, it’d be great.”

You still haven’t heard the good part.

“After I said that, I thought, ‘I’m capable of doing those things on my own,’” Epenesa said. “I can put in a little more effort like Parker. I can focus in on the details more like Anthony. All of those things can come to fruition and be real, it’s just a matter of me doing it.”

The first two years of Epenesa’s career have been spectacular strip sacks and a downloading of knowledge from a veteran position group guided and built by veteran coaches in Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell. When it comes to Epenesa, legacy is a thing. His dad, Eppy, played defensive line for the Hawkeyes in the early 1990s.

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Legacy is built into the Iowa program. Players walk into their position meeting room and see giant graphics of Hawkeye all-Americans. Morgan and Bell worked to foster this with their group. Players like Hesse, Sam Brincks, the Nelsons, they didn’t need much coaching on this. (The legacy idea runs deeper than you think. Morgan retired after 19 seasons. Jay Niemann was hired to replace him. He’s the father of former Iowa linebacker Ben and current Iowa linebacker Nick.)

You’ve probably heard of the “Rat Trap.” It was and, who knows, still might be a weekend getaway vehicle for the Hawkeyes’ D-line. It’s a 1976 Ford Coachmen.

Maybe the biggest smile Epenesa had while speaking with reporters on Tuesday was on this topic. He finally made it into the club, which is the Ford Coachmen that the guys have used at least once to drive to fellow player’s wedding.

“Everyone knows that about the camaraderie the group before us had,” Epenesa said. “Everyone knows about the little RV they have, that stuff. I was able to join that group a little bit and hang out with them and go on movie nights and stuff like that. Everyone knows how close those guys were.

“One of the greatest things about those guys was their knowledge of the game. They put so much time and effort into learning our defense, learning other offensive schemes and memorizing what plays look like what and all that stuff. It’s pretty amazing.

“That’s something we emphasize now. As a new unit, as a bunch of new guys who are going to be on the field, Coach Bell and Coach Niemann have made it a priority for us to get into the meeting room, to learn offensive formations and the names of them.”

Bell has his players dryboard the opponent’s offense.

“We have to put ‘gun, far troop’ (a defensive call) on the board,” Epenesa said. “Then it’s field. We have to draw where the linebackers and DBs are. Hopefully, we know where the defensive linemen should go. Just that knowledge.”

You saw Epenesa last year. The knowledge he’s gaining right now? That’s going to work for him next year. Imagine what that does for a player’s confidence.

Especially a junior defensive end who’s already led the Big Ten in sacks.

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“Knowing makes you more confident,” Epenesa said. “You think less and you just go more. It’s like anyone who’s a beginner. You start a little slower because you’re thinking. You do it, you think less about it.”

You might get as many as 200 more snaps of this in 2019.

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