By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – From the moment A.J. Epenesa joined the Iowa football team in the summer of 2017, his teammates knew that he was unique and special.
He had a gift that was nurtured since childhood and his teammates respected and admired him for it.
Senior defensive end Parker Hesse noticed the gift right away and immediately took a liking to Epenesa.
You could easily assume the gift in this case to be physical talent because the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Epenesa has an abundance of it as a former five-star recruit who now ranks among the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten as a true sophomore.
But that would be incorrect.
The gift in this case is humility because that is as much a part of A.J. Epenesa as his many physical attributes.
And that has made a huge impression.
“That’s something that is a great testament to who is and his character,” Hesse said. “He realizes that he’s an extremely talented guy, but his ceiling is even higher. He’s a guy that’s working every day to find that next edge and the next thing to help take his game to the next level. And that’s something that is extremely admirable in my opinion. He’s just t been a joy be around and to play with.”
Epenesa was rewarded for his performance on the field on Tuesday by making first-team All-Big Ten despite not even being a starter at defensive end.
The sophomore from Edwardsville, Ill., is a force on the field, a relentless pass rusher who is powered by a rare blend of size, strength, quickness and explosiveness.
“There are some talents that are just really hard to match, you know, just kind of rare,” Hesse said of Epenesa, who led Iowa with 15.5 tackles for loss and with 9.5 sacks during the regular season. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but just the quickness for his frame, it just makes it extremely hard for offensive players to block him, is really what it comes down to. He’s got a knack for getting to the ball and really does a great job.”
Epenesa also has a knack for blending in despite standing out.
There is no sense of entitlement with Epenesa despite his many accolades. And for that, his parents deserve credit.
“I’ve always tried to be humble my whole life and not let any kind of attention get to me,” Epenesa said. “And that’s really kind of been pressed on me by my parents, from my mom and dad.
“And I just wanted to carry that to here. I don’t want to change and be somebody else. I’m A.J., and I don’t want to be some other guy.”
Epenesa is the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, and being a legacy was largely why A.J. chose to be a Hawkeye over scholarship offers from virtually every major program in the country.
Eppy Epenesa cherished his time as a Hawkeye in the 1990s and he raised A.J. in that black and gold environment.
Eppy told A.J. stories over and over about being a Hawkeye and about playing for the legendary Hayden Fry and about the Iowa fans.
And when it came time for A.J. Epenesa to pick a college, the decision was easy.
It has proven to be a near perfect match with the humble former five-star recruit playing for the humble head coach who always preaches a team-first mentality, as is the case with Kirk Ferentz.
The fact that A.J. Epenesa is nearly halfway through his Hawkeye career without being a starter is a testimony to his team-first mentality and to his patience because a lot of five-star recruits probably would’ve said the heck with being the third defensive end in a three-man rotation and bailed.
“Just being able to be around these guys is a blessing for me,” A.J. Epenesa said. “They’ve helped push me along and I’ve been open to learning. I’ve just learned to be a sponge and take all their information in to better myself.”
Epenesa and Hesse will have one more chance to be teammates when Iowa plays in a bowl game that is yet to be determined.
Iowa’s most likely bowl destination is the Holiday Bowl on New Year’s Eve in San Diego, so that gives Epenesa another month to learn from Hesse, who came to Iowa as a two-star recruit, switched from linebacker to defensive end and became a starter as a redshirt due to season-ending injury to Drew Ott in 2015.
“To me it's really been, I think, A.J. would tell you this, it's been the perfect situation for A.J. where he hasn't had to go out there and maybe go through some of those things that Parker went through,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We've been able to pick his spots a little bit, and we're all seeing growth with him, which is exciting, because like some of the other guys we talked about he has a pretty good skill set.
“He's really starting to figure out the tempo now and really starting to play with a little bit more decisiveness and confidence. So when you have that going, it's fun to watch that stuff going on, and just think about this, too, think about how much he's learned from being next to Parker, sitting next to him in a room or rooming with him on the road, all those things that really are important things and the fun things about football.”
A.J. Epenesa has shown no hints of resentment about not being a starter. He understands that Hesse and junior defensive end Anthony Nelson both deserve to start.
But even if he didn’t feel that way deep down, A.J. Epenesa has too much class and humility to put himself before the team.
His father responded to fans on Facebook after some had complained about A.J. being listed behind Hesse on the 2018 spring depth chart. Eppy Epenesa told fans to trust the Iowa coaches and to respect Hesse for not only being a good player, but also a mentor to his son.
The way in which Eppy Epenesa handled that situation helps to explain his son's values.
“We all want to make plays,” A.J. Epenesa said. “And when we see other people making plays, we all know that we can do that as well. And so we just kind of feed off each other. There really is no competition. It’s all like we can destroy these guys as a unit.”
A.J. Epenessa is quick to deflect praise to everyone who has helped him achieve success in college, a group that includes senior defensive tackles Sam Brincks and Matt Nelson, defensive line coach Reese Morgan and assistant defensive line coach Kelvin Bell, and of course, his two cohorts at defensive end.
“I think that was essential for me to become who I am today,” A.J. Epenesa said. “Just being able to look at things and recognize who the running back is or how many receivers are inside or if the tight end is in front of me or whatever.
“They’ve opened my eyes to new things, and that comes from Parker, Anthony and Matt, Sam Brincks, coach Bell, and obviously coach Morgan. They’ve all just kind of helped push me along.”
But the help started at home with A.J. Epenesa’s parents, Eppy and his mother Stephanie. They raised all of their children to be humble, loyal and appreciative of those around them.
They also raised one heck of a defensive end, but maybe even a better person.
And that says a lot about A.J. Epenesa.