The Next J.J. Watt? Iowa Edge A.J. Epenesa Lets His Dominance Speak for Itself

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead Writer


Editor's note: This article was first published on September 12, 2019.


IOWA CITY — He doesn't talk like one of the best football players in America. In fact, A.J. Epenesa seems almost embarrassed to be doing this interview at all. Not because his first official start at Iowa came just a few weeks ago. But because Epenesa can do without it all. The attention. The interest. The NFL mock drafts projecting him in the top 10 next spring (OK, he admits. He is slightly curious). And yes, this interview.    

He looks the part, though. That isn't up for debate as Epenesa eases his 6'6", 280-pound body—the kind of body built for taking down quarterbacks—into an office chair near his team's cafeteria. He says he models his game after J.J. Watt's, and it takes only a few seconds to understand why.

Epenesa is wearing a gray Iowa shirt, black shorts and brown sandals, with a beard that is just kempt enough. The tattoo that blankets his right arm—a magnificently detailed tribute to his Samoan heritage that, to date, has taken 15 hours to create, with more hours still left to go—dips below his sleeve and past his elbow.

Despite having reservations about publicity and the press, his answers are thoughtful. He is smooth and open—more so than most can't-miss football prospects. Yes, he has done everything possible to avoid the spotlight, but it's not because he dislikes meeting people. It's because throughout his life, he's never wanted it to be about him.

It's largely why he followed in his father's footsteps and committed to Iowa, a program that hadn't landed a 5-star football recruit in more than a decade. And after he arrived, it's why he embraced his reserve role. He grew into his role as a situational pass-rusher as a freshman. As a sophomore, he led the Big Ten in sacks.

He won't be able to avoid being the focal point of attention for long. Not when NFL scouts and execs have his name right beside that of potential No. 1 overall pick Chase Young among the top edge-rushers available in this year's draft.

"Young is more athletic by a hair and gets more hype," an NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "But I bet Epenesa is the better pro. There's some J.J. Watt to his game"

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

No matter how hard he tries, Epenesa won't escape what's coming. Acclaim. Celebrity status. And mounting NFL interest.

Like the many linemen he torments, there's a lingering inevitability to what happens next.

Like his son, the father would prefer not to speak. He's grown tired of the calls and requests for interviews, and he knows they're not going to stop.

"No disrespect to you and your line of work," Eppy Epenesa, A.J.'s father, responds via text message. "But almost every day, someone wants info on him or wants to write a story on him. I just want him to enjoy college and learn as much as he can from those great folks in Iowa."

After a few more exchanged messages, Eppy calls out of the blue between shifts at his job. He is a supervisor for Southwest Airlines at St. Louis Airport, near their hometown of Glen Carbon, Illinois—a small town named for its coal-mining origins. It's a little past 5:30 p.m., and he's still on the clock for four more hours.

These days, Eppy spends his life largely either at work or in his car. Having four children who are passionate about sports means busy nights and weekends. His oldest, Samantha, played volleyball at Purdue. And A.J.'s younger brothers, Eric and Iosefatu, are athletes, too.

To make it to Iowa in time for games on Saturdays, Eppy is often on the road long before the sun rises.

Before Eppy walked on the football team at his son's current school, he began his life in American Samoa, a string of islands in the South Pacific. He left his home in Pago Pago to play football halfway across the world at Iowa Wesleyan, where he met his wife, Stephanie, who was on the volleyball team there. After two years at Wesleyan, Eppy walked on at Iowa. He eventually earned a scholarship, playing defensive end in 1996 and '97 under the guidance of iconic coach Hayden Fry, who nicknamed him "Repeat."

"It was the people of Iowa," says Eppy, whose given name is Epenesa, like his surname. "It reminded me of where I'm from. It's all about the people."

Eppy never pressured A.J. to play football, but his son took to it, blossoming at Edwardsville High School after overcoming a broken leg as a freshman. He was a first-team all-state selection and received All-America honors three times while helping to lead his team to a 40-6 record.

Epenesa also received All-America honors in track. He set the Illinois record in the discus as a junior and won the state title as a senior. And in basketball, he scored more than 1,000 points during his high school career and averaged a double-double as a senior.

When his former basketball teammate, Mark Smith, was recruited by some of the elite basketball programs and coaches in America, Epenesa naturally caught their eye.

"There were a lot of coaches that came to visit," Epenesa says. "They would say things like, 'I wish you weren't committed for football, because we'd want to take you for basketball.'"

In football, the sport he grew up destined to play, interest was widespread. Epenesa was ranked the No. 1 strong-side defensive end nationally in his class by 247Sports. He had offers from most of the major programs around the country, including Alabama and Ohio State.

For a while, he fell in love with Notre Dame. Then Oklahoma. But Iowa and Iowa City always had the allure—the allure of playing close to his home and for the program that ultimately changed his family's life.

Epenesa visiting Iowa in 2015
Epenesa visiting Iowa in 2015Matthew Holst/Getty Images

"I told A.J. the same thing we told my daughter," Eppy says. "I didn't want him to go to Iowa because we went to Iowa. Go to Iowa because you love Iowa the way we love Iowa."

The best players in America don't regularly funnel to Iowa City. According to 247Sports, the last 5-star player to commit to Iowa before Epenesa came in 2005. Climate, in-state talent and Iowa's standing in the college football hierarchy all play a role. These historical obstacles were of no concern to Epenesa as he weighed his options.

"Every time I was here, I just really felt comfortable," Epenesa says. "I loved being around Iowa City. I felt like it was a place that was familiar to me. It felt like home, and I'm a big homebody. I love my family. And that feeling was what really drove me."

When he decided to commit, he didn't plan a hat ceremony or announce it on social media. His father didn't think that would be appropriate. "We wanted to do this right," Eppy says. "We wanted to do this old-school." So the entire family made the four-and-a-half-hour trek to Iowa City to tell the coaching staff in person. His oldest sister drove from Purdue and even sported an Iowa shirt for the occasion.

With Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who took over for Fry in 1999, in attendance, the father was the first one to speak, beginning an emotional announcement before handing it over to the son.

"I think A.J. has something to tell you," he said.

For Ferentz, the moments are still so vivid. As he cycles through more than 40 years of coaching, reciting some of the truly spectacular players he has worked with, it's as if they just left.

Over his right shoulder, outside the window in his office, the finishing touches are being made to the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium a month before the season begins. Ferentz, now 64, is the longest-tenured coach in college football.

In that time, he has recruited and developed a number of extraordinary players. Like quarterback Brad Banks, who led the Hawkeyes to the Orange Bowl and finished as the runner-up in the Heisman race in 2002. And linebacker Chad Greenway, who became a fixture of the Minnesota Vikings defense for 10 years and made the Pro Bowl twice. And safety Bob Sanders, who was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 for the Colts. Not to mention his most recent departures, tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both of whom were selected in the first round of the 2019 draft.

But many of these players were not considered extraordinary as freshmen. Unlike Epenesa, the majority of Ferentz's NFL success stories were with players who weren't wildly coveted out of high school.

Those players flourished after they arrived, which has fueled Iowa's success over the past two decades. Epenesa's recruitment and eventual arrival was far different.

"He could have gone anywhere in the country," Ferentz says. "Everybody in the world was knocking his door down.

"There was a particular Big Ten school that hired a recruiting guy who was Samoan or Polynesian. Just coincidentally hired him, and he was on the hotline down to Edwardsville.

"There's no way we get A.J. if it weren't for his mom and dad and the strong ties to the program."

Upon arrival, it was clear early that Epenesa was different than most true freshmen. But as is often the case at Iowa, Epenesa was not given an abundance of reps right away. He still flashed promise, finishing with 4.5 sacks during his first season.

As a sophomore, Epenesa once again didn't start. His role increased, however, and he led the Big Ten in sacks with 10.5 despite coming off the bench. He also finished with 16.5 tackles for loss.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 06: A.J. Epenesa #94 of the Iowa Hawkeyes tackles Mohamed Ibrahim #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first quarter of the game on October 6, 2018 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

At Iowa, his career path has become a running joke of sorts. A young player blessed with NFL potential is trying to crack the starting lineup. Ferentz has heard it plenty over the past few seasons, although he takes the criticism with a smile.  

"He's probably the most talked-about player ever in the history of Iowa football who hasn't started a game," Ferentz says. "Everybody has him as the fourth pick of the draft and all that, and I think he's almost embarrassed by it in some ways. I just want to make sure he doesn't feel like he has to be something that's been created, the legend of A.J. Epenesa."

To Ferentz, this is all part of a process—one that routinely grooms Iowa players into NFL draft picks. But many highly regarded players would not look favorably on this approach. Often these situations can become uncomfortable and lead to drama, discomfort or, increasingly, a transfer.

"You have a highly recruited guy who's extremely talented. But he's also humble and cares about other people," says former Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan, who retired over the offseason. "A lot of times, those guys have egos. That is absolutely not the case here."

Epenesa didn't come to Iowa to leave. That was never part of the plan. Sure, there were moments when he wanted to see the field more over the past two seasons, but he found success through gradual growth.

"I always had the mindset of my time will come," Epenesa says. "Everyone who wants to be good at football wants to play, but I tried to stay patient. Now it's my time to let loose."

Epenesa's first showing of real, deep emotion comes 37 minutes in. After gliding through discussion of his deep, unconditional love for his family, and of everything that has led him to this point in his life, he finally stumbles when asked about the art of bull-rushing.

His body shifts. His eyes flicker and widen. His hand gestures become far more pronounced. While every defensive lineman has his trademark move to apply pressure, Epenesa is almost giddy as he explains just how much he enjoys lifting an offensive lineman from his feet and into the air.

"It's the most satisfying feeling when 320 pounds feels weightless," Epenesa says. "If you can successfully put a bull rush on the table on the first rep, that's it. It's like, 'Dude, you're in for it. You're going to let me do that right now? You're going to have some problems today.'"

Power is without question Epenesa's greatest asset. But at 280 pounds, he also generates enough speed and burst to make himself a menace chasing quarterbacks.

"I'm confident that I could successfully pass-rush against anybody," Epenesa says. "But I know there are also a lot of things I could work on."

IOWA CITY, IOWA - AUGUST 31: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa #94 of the Iowa Hawkeyes puts pressure in the first half on quaterback Brett Gabbert #5 of the Miami Ohio RedHawks on August 31, 2019 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Ge
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The part that has NFL personnel most curious is the unknown. Because the exposure of Epenesa has been more natural and gradual than it is for many draft prospects, there are still questions as to what he will look like fully developed—not just as a starting defensive lineman, but as a star who will regularly battle double-teams and be schemed against differently every week.

"The thing I'm most excited about is that his best football is clearly in front of him," Ferentz says. "He's played good football for us and made really good plays, but he's still a really young guy who's just learning and developing. And he's got a great attitude about it. It's everything you want in the player."

On Saturday, in his second game as a starter, his full catalog of ability was on display against Rutgers. He sacked the opposing quarterback by almost leaping over him. The next series, he hit the quarterback's arm and forced an interception.

While Epenesa officially logged only one sack in the team's suffocating 30-0 victory, his impact on the game was far greater—a punishing, unrelenting force that disrupted the opposition's rhythm from the beginning.

Over the coming weeks and months, Epenesa will be the centerpiece of Iowa's defense. It will begin Saturday when the Hawkeyes travel to Iowa State in perhaps the most significant game of Week 3. From there, they'll head to Michigan and later Wisconsin—games that promise to be rife with scouts and NFL eyes.

If Epenesa continues to perform, his likelihood of being an early draft selection will only increase. His profile will continue to blossom. His celebrity status will grow.

And yes, the spotlight will only intensify, whether he or his father want it to or not.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.


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