Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa blocking outside noise, focusing on Holiday Bowl

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A.J. Epenesa celebrates a big play.

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa both came to Iowa in the same 2017 recruiting class and now the question is whether or not they will leave the Iowa football program at the same time.

Wirfs, a junior offensive tackle, and Epenesa, a junior defensive end, both are projected as first-day picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Wirfs and Epenesa also have entered their names for feedback from NFL organizations after a season in which both were named first-team All-Big Ten and Wirfs was named the conference offensive lineman of the year.

Epenesa finished the regular season with nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles while Wirfs was named one of six finalists for the Outland Trophy.

“I’m looking forward to getting the feedback back,” Epenesa said. “I’ve been talking to (head) coach (Kirk) Ferentz and the other coaches and just looking through my options."

While there has been a lot of speculation about whether or not the 6-foot-5, 322-pound Wirfs will return to Iowa next season, none of that talk has come from him.

“I really haven’t been trying to look at those a lot,” Wirfs said. “People will tag me in them on Instagram or something like that. I try not to look at it. They’re just not, I don’t know, accurate. They’re not people that work for the NFL. I don’t try and look at it.”

Both players are physical specimens and natural talents, but their success also has a lot to do with extensive playing time as true freshmen.

Wirfs, a native of Mount Vernon, Iowa, became the first true freshman to start at tackle under Ferentz after injuries plagued the offensive line in 2017.

The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Epenesa, a native of Glen Carbon, Ill., came to Iowa as a five-star recruit and saw action in every game as a freshman recording 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2017.

Epenesa currently has 24 sacks and 35 tackles for loss in his career.

Luckily for Wirfs and Epenesa, they have strong support systems between family, coaches and teammates to help shoulder much of the burden of being in the limelight.

“I think my mom has gotten bombarded a lot more than I have,” Wirfs said. “My uncle, too, probably. I feel bad just kind of putting it all on them, but my mom said she’ll take care of it. She wanted me to just focus on the season.”

For both players, the only thing that matters right now is what happens between now and the end of the Holiday Bowl against Southern California in San Diego on Dec. 27.

Neither player indicated that they have given any thought to skipping the game to prepare for the NFL.

“You make it through the whole season with your teammates and brothers and you play in the bowl game,” Epenesa said. “I haven’t decided if I’m staying or leaving. I’m just going and playing for the guys with me.”

Stone also enters name: Junior safety Geno Stone said on Sunday that he also has entered his name for NFL feedback.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pound native of New Castle, Pa. was a second-team all-Big Ten selection this season.

Bowl history: Iowa’s last meeting with Southern Cal was a 38-17 loss in the 2003 Orange Bowl after an 11-1 regular season.

The Hawkeyes will be making their 33rd bowl game appearance and their fourth Holiday Bowl appearance -- the first since 1991. Iowa is 2-0-1 all-time in the Holiday Bowl, defeating San Diego State (39-38) in 1986, Wyoming (20-19) in 1987, and tying Brigham Young (13-13), in 1991.

Get your tickets: The University of Iowa Athletics Ticket Office is now accepting online bowl orders at hawkeyesports.com/bowlcentral. Fans may also order tickets by calling 1-800-IAHAWKS Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Tickets will be filled based on current priority point total and there are no ticket limits for the Holiday Bowl through Hawkeye Athletics. Fans need to sign into your ticket account to access the ordering page for the Holiday Bowl. If demands exceed supply for a price level, you will be moved to the next available level.

The priority point order deadline for Holiday Bowl tickets is Friday, Dec. 13 at 5 p.m.

Official bowl travel packages are also available at hawkeyesports.com/bowlcentral.

The team has already practiced twice and will leave Dec. 21 for San Diego.

Bowling with Ferentz: The Hawkeyes rank third among Big Ten teams in bowl appearances since 2001 and is bowl eligible for the 18th time under head coach Kirk Ferentz. Iowa is 8-8 in bowl games under Ferentz, including a 27-22 victory over No. 18 Mississippi State in the 2019 Outback Bowl.  Since 2001, only Ohio State and Wisconsin have won more bowl games (including the FBS championship game), than Iowa.