By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs stood about 10 feet from each other on Tuesday as they answered questions from the Iowa media.
They were among six Iowa football players who were made available at Tuesday’s press conference.
Epenesa and Wirfs both answered numerous questions, but there was one question in particular that reporters seemed eager to ask both of them, and understandably so.
Reporters wanted to know how Epenesa, a 6-foot-6, 280-pound junior defensive end, and Wirfs, a 6-5, 320-pound junior offensive lineman, look at their status as potential first-round draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft and whether they use it as motivation or try to block it out.
“I’ve seen some of those things, and the first thing that comes to mind is, wow, that’s pretty cool,” said Epenesa, who led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks last season as a second-year sophomore reserve. “It’s a life-long dream. But whenever I really think about it, I try not to think too hard about it because I don’t want it to affect other things.
“Obviously, it’s a blessing to be put up that high with other big names and some of those guys that I know that are really good at the game of football. But I really focus on trying not to think about it that much because I don’t want it to take away from my game right now, or just think too much about it. I basically don’t want to lose focus on what’s going on here.”
Wirfs gave a similar answer when asked the same question.
“I don’t try and really think much of it,” Wirfs said. “It’s cool to see and everything. But you guys probably heard the same thing from (A.J.), you’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”
Part of the reason that Epenesa and Wirfs don’t dwell on the future is because they’re too busy living in the moment. They both understand that the best way to prepare for the future is to embrace the daily grind. They both also love the college experience, and have only been in college for two years with neither having been redshirted.
But on the other hand, Epenesa and Wirfs also acknowledge that the NFL hype serves as motivation.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting to see that stuff because like freshman year, you’re still thinking that going to the NFL is like a dream and everything, and now you start seeing your name on things,” Wirfs said. “It’s exciting, but I don’t really try and dig much into it or anything like that.”
Reporters will eventually stop asking about the NFL Draft because the answers from Epenesa and Wirfs won’t change and because there is only so many ways the subject can be addressed.
It also would become an unnecessary distraction during the season to keep bringing up the draft.
But the circumstances on Tuesday seemed ideal for bringing up the 2020 NFL Draft, and Epenesa and Wirfs both handled it well. They’re both honored and thankful to be thought of so highly as NFL draft picks, but they also have a responsibility to the Iowa football team.
There is a very good chance that a year from now Epenesa and Wirfs will both be multi-millionaires and preparing for a career in the NFL.
But until then, it’s all about living in the moment and embracing the college experience, both on and off the field.
A.J. Epenesa grew up in Edwardsville, Ill., wanting to be a Hawkeye and that didn’t change after he became one of the top high school recruits in the country.
His father also played football for Iowa in the 1990s, so it was almost as if A.J. was born and raised to be a Hawkeye. He considers it a privilege to represent Iowa and to play for his father’s beloved alma mater.
In fact, A.J. Epenesa is so devoted to being a Hawkeye that he has waited two years just to be a starter. Some former five-star recruits wouldn’t have had the patience or the humility to do that and would have transferred.
But Epenesa accepted his role and tried to be a sponge while playing behind former Iowa defensive ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse for two seasons. Instead of pouting or complaining, Epenesa tried to learn as much as he could from both of them.
“The way they just kind of accepted me and brought me in I think is something unique,” Epenesa said. “I think maybe other places they’d be a little more skeptical.”
Wirfs grew up barely 20 miles from the Iowa campus in Mount Vernon. So he also had a connection to the Iowa program just from it being so close to him.
Wirfs already is a star and a celebrity in the Iowa weight room, and his reputation was enhanced by a video from this past winter that shows him breaking an Iowa weight-lifting record. The video went viral on social media and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about it during a late-March press conference that marked the start of spring practice.
Iowa's veteran head coach, whose expertise is the offensive line, seemed to issue his talented right tackle a challenge.
"I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, I mean what he did is pretty impressive. You can't teach that," Ferentz said. "And he works really hard. It's not that he just did it.
"But the next challenge is to do that same thing on the field. And that's his next step, I think. He's played well for us for two years. He played better this year than a year ago like you would hope."
Unlike Epenesa, Wirfs hasn't made first-team All-Big Ten, or second-team for that matter. Wirfs was named honorable mention All-Big Ten last season by the coaches and by the media.
So there still is plenty of room for improvement, and Wirfs is fully aware of that. He understands that the best way to improve is to focus on the now, and everything else will take care of itself over time.
Wirfs and Epenesa are both living a dream as Iowa football players, and there is no reason to rush that dream, even with NFL riches waiting for both of them.
It is important to appreciate and to respect the journey because the journey makes everything else possible, including reaching that desired destination.
Iowa fans would love for Epenesa and Wirfs to play for four years in college, but if the NFL does come calling next spring with first- or-second-round money, it would make no sense for them to stay another year.
It would be time to start a new journey. But for now, that journey can wait.