Iowa's defensive linemen are thriving in a culture built on mutual respect and trust

A.J. Epenesa points out a false start by the Iowa State offensive line on Saturday. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - In some ways, Kirk Ferentz is always coaching.

He always is thinking of ways or responding in ways that he feels will make his team, his players and the circumstances surrounding his team and his players better.

That’s why Ferentz will sometimes bring up Parker Hesse’s name unsolicited, as was the case after the Iowa football team's13-3 victory over Iowa State on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Ferentz was addressing Iowa’s depth and athleticism on the defensive line, which has led the way to eight sacks in the first two games, when he mentioned Hesse, who is starting for his third season at defensive end.

Ferentz also had been asked about sophomore sensation A.J. Epenesa in the previous question, so the focus was clearly on Iowa’s defensive line.

Epenesa, a former five-star recruit, had two sacks and two tackles for loss against Iowa State and the reporter started by saying that Iowa doesn’t have any ready-bodied athletes like him.

“I think those guys are having fun,” Ferentz said of the defensive linemen. “They’re working hard and having success. They’ve worked extremely hard.

“One guy again, doesn’t pass the sexy test is Parker Hesse, right? But boy, this guy just shows up. He really sets tempo for us up front.”

Ferentz was right about his assessment of Hesse, who was a former high school quarterback and a two-star recruit.

But the reporter was also right in saying that Iowa doesn’t have any ready-bodied athletes like the 6-foot-5, 277-pound A.J. Epenesa.

You had two different narratives at work.

On one hand, there was the reporter recognizing the rare and celebrated talent of A.J. Epenesa, while on the other hand, there was Ferentz recognizing a player who symbolizes Iowa’s success as a developmental program as much as any other player.

Ferentz has an incredible amount of respect for Hesse as a player and as a person.

But Ferentz also respects and admires Epenesa.

It’s just that the circumstances are different because Epenesa is two years behind Hesse in eligibility, and because Epenesa was the kind of recruit who doesn’t normally sign with Iowa.

Epenesa had his pick of schools as a five-star recruit, but he chose Iowa largely because he grew up around the Hawkeye culture as the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa.

The media has embraced and helped to perpetuate the A.J. Epenesa story, and rightfully so, because he is worthy of the attention.

He is also a good kid, which is so important in this case.

Eppy Epenesa and his wife, Stephanie, should be proud because their son doesn’t appear to have any sense of entitlement, which is rare for a five-star recruit.

A.J. Epenesa might be the most talented defensive end to play for Iowa since the legendary Andre Tippett nearly 40 years ago, and yet, A.J. still isn’t a starter after 15 games because of Hesse.

What could be an awkward and divisive situation is far from being that because of A.J. Epenesa’s character, but also because Ferentz does those little subtle things to prevent the awkwardness from growing.

It also helps that Hesse is a good player who has a knack for making big plays at pivotal times.

But Hesse isn't flashy, nor was he a celebrated recruit, so it's easy to underestimate him, unless you're A.J. Epenesa or A.J. Epenesa's father. 

Eppy Epenesa posted a message to Iowa fans on Facebook in late March in which he told them to trust the Iowa coaches and to respect Hesse as a player and as a teammate. Eppy’s post was in response to some fans who had voiced their displeasure on social media after the spring depth chart was released and A.J. Epenesa still was listed behind Hesse.

And even with his immense talent, it took some time for A.J. Epenesa to adjust to the college game. It might seem like he is being allowed to do more now as a pass rusher, but it could also be that he is just better than he was as a true freshman.

That’s what Ferentz seemed to indicate after Saturday’s victory over Iowa State.

“We allowed him last year, too, he just wasn’t doing it,” Ferentz said of rushing the passer. “So I’m talking about what we’re saying on that theme of young guys.

“Nobody has had more hype, I think, in the last 19-plus years than A.J. coming in here. And I get that. He’s a really good player, good prospect, great kid. But last year he was learning how to play, too.”

The truth is that Iowa needs all three of its star defensive ends with 6-7, 271-pound Anthony Nelson also part of the pass-rushing triumvirate.

Third-year sophomore Chauncey Golston is another intriguing option at defensive end.

Part of being a head football coach is creating an environment in which all the players buy into the team-first mentality.

Every Big Ten football player, even A.J. Epenesa, has an ego and the desire for individual success. It’s up to the head coach to fit a player’s individual goals within the framework of the team.

Ferentz has been accused of being too loyal to some veteran players over the years, but it usually occurs after a younger players has emerged. So fans make the assumption that the younger player should’ve played sooner when maybe he wasn’t ready to play sooner.

I’ve never thought that Kirk Ferentz has played favorites, but I do think he likes to reward loyalty and experience.

And though it has only been two games, Iowa’s defensive line has a chance to be special. They led the way to victory against Northern Illinois in the season opener and against Iowa State and now they pose a huge threat to Northern Iowa this coming Saturday.

And remember, Reese Morgan coaches the defensive line and is a master at getting players to reach their potential while putting the team first.

The players also deserve credit for helping to build the right chemistry.

A.J. Epenesa has thanked and praised practically every defensive linemen on the team for embracing him and for teaching him the college game.

It was Matt Nelson’s turn on Saturday.

“Matt’s always been like a big brother to me, like a mentor” A.J. Epenesa said of the senior defensive tackle from Cedar Rapids. “He put me under his wing when I first came here and taught me everything, really. He just kind of showed me the defense and showed me the ropes.”

The fact that Matt Nelson was so willing to help Epenesa says a lot about them, but also about the culture that Kirk Ferentz has built.