Iowa Football

Iowa's perfect blend at defensive end

Hesse, Nelson, Epenesa and Golston - 'Couldn't have drawn it up better'

Iowa defensive ends A.J. Epenesa (94), Anthony Nelson (98), Chauncey Golston (57) and Parker Hesse (40). (The Gazette)
Iowa defensive ends A.J. Epenesa (94), Anthony Nelson (98), Chauncey Golston (57) and Parker Hesse (40). (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The story of Iowa’s 2018 defensive ends begins with the fact that Chauncey Golston isn’t good at basketball.

The are other, more important things, of course. The Hawkeyes’ pass rush has been among the best in the Big Ten this season. They’ve also stopped the run. They’ve had blips in the four losses, but, statistically, this is one of the best defenses head coach Kirk Ferentz has had in his 20 seasons.

Only five Iowa teams (1981, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008) have held opponents to less than 100 rushing yards per game in program history. This might not hold for the 2018 Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten). They’re allowing 99.5 going into Friday’s 11 a.m. matchup with Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) in Kinnick Stadium and then there’s the bowl.

Still, it’s the first opponent question on Iowa that coaches have fielded throughout the season.

“They have some guys that are like 6-8 up there on their defensive line, so it may be hard to move the guys every once in a while,” Huskers offensive lineman Tanner Farmer said.

The ends have been the flagship. Iowa has rotated senior Parker Hesse, junior Anthony Nelson, sophomore A.J. Epenesa and Golston, a sophomore, and it’s worked. It’s worked like a home run.

It’s been a blend of run stopping, pass rushing and all of the physical defensive end things. It’s also been a season-long leadership workshop conducted by Hesse, a link to Iowa’s 12-2 2015 season, when he replaced injured star Drew Ott and held his own as a redshirt freshman.

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The leadership thing has always been there with Hesse. His only FBS offer was Iowa. He wouldn’t commit to the Hawkeyes until after his senior football season was finished. He didn’t want it to be a distraction to the team.

“They were trying to do something as a team, collectively, and he didn’t want it to be a distraction, his story to be the news instead of the team,” Ferentz said. “That’s just how he’s wired. He’s been that way from day one here.”

Message board guy has watched this all season. He/she/it still can’t get over the fact that Hesse starts ahead of Epenesa, a 5-star recruit who earned his second Big Ten defensive player of the week honor with his total destruction of Illinois last week.

The further we all are from practice, the easier conclusions are made. What’s Epenesa say?

“Being able to learn from him is something that not everyone gets, especially for me being at the same position,” said Epenesa, who’s tied for second in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks. “I get his firsthand attention. What he knows and his experience kind of flows into me and that’s been an extreme help.”

The state of Iowa is at work here. Legacy also is a factor.

Hesse is from Waukon and always wanted to play for Iowa. Nelson’s dad, Jeff, played defensive line for Iowa (1990-92). Epenesa’s dad, Eppy, also is a former Iowa D-lineman (1997).

Iowa’s gritty culture was ingrained, almost to unbelievable lengths.

The “J” in A.J. Epenesa’s name is Jared. He’s named after former Iowa and NFL defensive end Jared DeVries, who played with Eppy Epenesa in the late 1990s.

DeVries wore No. 94. After being denied No. 99 and sort of having No. 54 for a little while, A.J. Epenesa ended up with 94.

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“Coach Woods (LeVar Woods, special teams coordinator), who played with my dad and Jared saw it and thought it would be only right for me to wear 94 as well,” A.J. Epenesa said. “That’s how it went. I think I look pretty sweet in 94.”

Now, only 30 more sacks to go for Epenesa to catch DeVries’ Iowa record of 43.

At 6-3, 261, Hesse is the runt. He also came in with little fanfare. Hesse was a Rivals 2-star recruit with offers from FCS schools and the Hawkeyes.

He’ll finish his career as a four-year starter with at least 14.0 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss.

Beyond the field, Hesse’s teammates might tattoo the captain’s “C” on his chest for life.

“Coach Ferentz gave us a quote the other day, ‘Hard work demands respect,’” Epenesa said. “I think that epitomizes who Parker is. You can tell he’s the hardest worker in the room, because he’s always been underestimated.

“Just from everything I’ve ever seen about Parker he’s always been seen as the little guy. He’s worked his butt off to become a beast on the D-line.”

Nelson is quieter, more of a doer. The 6-7, 271 pounds certainly help with that. He has 21.0 career sacks going into today.

Having his father go through the program, Nelson has a vivid understanding of what it takes to make it at Iowa. And, sure, he’s kind of made it — he was asked about making an early leap to the NFL this week, he said wait and see — and that’s the thing that grabs his fellow defensive ends’ attention.

You can’t tell Nelson has done anything.

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“I learned humbleness from him,” said Golston, who now has 3.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss in his first season of really playing. “Anthony is a very good player. If you talk to him, you wouldn’t know it. He’s just like an average Joe. He teaches you to be humble, but he doesn’t harp that to you. It just radiates off him.”

There’s also a cultural factor working here.

Hesse and Nelson are from Waukon and Waukee. Golston is from Detroit. Epenesa is Samoan and from Edwardsville, Ill.

“We’re just one big mixing pot,” Golston said. “We just jell together. Where you come from doesn’t matter. It’s where we’re trying to get to.”

Nelson said the four defensive ends are inseparable in the Hansen Performance Center. They have movie nights. They eat together. Of course, athletes love sports. Of course, they all think they’re NBA-caliber basketball players.

They do play some hoops in the offseason.

“We always make fun of Chauncey because he didn’t play basketball in high school,” Nelson said. “We tell him how much of a waste that was.”

Golston is 6-5, 265. So, hoops isn’t an unreasonable assumption.

“Chauncey can’t play basketball to save his life,” said Epenesa, a 1,000-point scorer at Edwardsville High School. “My first reaction when I saw Chauncey was, ‘That dude is athletic, I’ll bet he was dunking all over people.’ But he’s never played basketball.”

Golston really never did play basketball.

“I didn’t like it, even at a young age,” Golston said.

This is the cleats game and they all belong, more than belong. They’re all thriving and helping each other thrive. This foursome has generated 23.5 of Iowa’s 31.0 sacks this season (tied for second in the Big Ten).

“It almost seems like a perfect fit,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t seem like I could’ve drawn it up any better if I wanted to.”

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Hesse is the senior. He’s the one who is for sure leaving. Let’s wait on Nelson’s grade from the NFL draft advisory board before making any conclusions there.

Hesse points to the ceiling on the topic of their futures.

“I think everyone sees not only what they do now, which is certainly incredible, but there’s the fact that all three have an extremely high ceiling,” Hesse said. “That’s one thing Anthony and I talk about. It’s almost as fun to come out for a series, because you get to watch Chauncey and A.J. play. That’s just as fun as being out there.

“That goes for all three of them. The things they do are really special.”

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

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