By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Instead of worrying about whether A.J. Epenesa will return for his senior season, it would seem more enjoyable to appreciate and savor whatever time there is left in his Iowa football career.
We were reminded of Epenesa’s greatness on Tuesday as he was named first-team All-Big Ten by the league's coaches and by the media, and deservedly so.
The junior defensive end from Glen Carbon, Ill., capped the regular season in spectacular fashion with 14 tackles, including nine solo stops, 4 ½ tackles for loss and two sacks during Iowa’s 27-24 victory over Nebraska on Black Friday in Lincoln, Neb.
He finished the regular season with 45 tackles, including 13 for losses, nine sacks, nine quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.
Epenesa made first-team All-Big Ten last season as a reserve and led the conference with 10.5 sacks, so it was widely assumed that he would make it again this season as a starter.
But it wasn’t easy because opposing offenses went out of their way to compensate for Epenesa’s relentless pressure off the edge, either with multiple blockers or with quick throws.
He didn’t start piling up sacks right away and that became one of the early storylines to emerge this season.
But he also didn’t complain or make excuses.
Epenesa just kept grinding, and much like his team, he finished the regular season in impressive fashion.
He also said he will play in Iowa’s bowl game, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because A.J. Epenesa, as the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, is as loyal and dedicated as he is talented.
And my opinion won’t change, even if A.J. Epenesa skips his senior season to enter the 2020 NFL Draft where he projects as a possible first-round pick.
That is a personal decision that has no right or wrong answer.
It’s the same with junior offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, both of whom also project as possible high draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.
It is easy to tell somebody what they should do when the consequences have no impact on your life.
Epenesa, Wirfs and Jackson should do what they feel is in their best interest.
They should listen to who they trust the most, and also trust their own judgment.
Former Iowa tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant both left with eligibility remaining, including two seasons for Hockenson, and now they’re both millionaires after having been selected tin the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, respectively.
Selfishly, I’d love for Epenesa, Wirfs and Jackson all to return for their senior seasons because just imagine the impact they would have, especially with Iowa breaking in a new starting quarterback next season.
Think about how explosive the Iowa offense would have been this season with Hockenson and Fant joining forces with an emerging group of receivers.
Iowa still finished a respectable 9-3 during the regular season without Hockenson and Fant, and the defense led by A.J. Epenesa is a big reason why.
Defensive backs Geno Stone and Michael Ojemudia also were honored by the Big Ten Conference on Tuesday by being named second- and third-team All-Big Ten, respectively, by the league's coaches.
Ojemudia, a senior cornerback, was also named second-team by the media.
Other than allowing 300 rushing yards during a 24-22 loss at Wisconsin on Nov. 9th, the Iowa defense did enough in each game to give Iowa a chance to win.
Michigan defeated Iowa 10-3 on Oct. 5th in Ann Arbor, Mich., despite only gaining 267 yards on 59 plays, while Penn State escaped from Kinnick Stadium with a 17-12 victory on Oct. 12th despite gaining just 294 yards on 77 plays.
A team doesn’t win nine games by accident, and with Iowa, the winning formula this season has been a rock-solid defense and reliable special teams.
A.J. Epenesa came to Iowa a rare five-star recruit, and you could argue that he has been even better than advertised.
He waited patiently and accepted his role while playing behind before former defensive ends Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson during his first two seasons at Iowa. A lot of five-star recruits wouldn't have been willing to do that.
But A.J. Epenesa is unique in so many ways, and Iowa is fortunate to have him for however longer that might be.