Epenesa leads defensive line into new era

With all four starters gone, the defensive line is now A.J. Epenesa’s to lead.

Iowa+defensive+lineman+A.J.+Epenesa+blocks+a+punt+during+Iowa%27s+game+against+Illinois+at+Memorial+Stadium+in+Champaign+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+17%2C+2018.+The+Hawkeyes+defeated+the+Fighting+Illini+63-0.
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Epenesa leads defensive line into new era

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa blocks a punt during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa blocks a punt during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa blocks a punt during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa blocks a punt during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

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If a genie came out of a bottle and gave A.J. Epenesa the chance to become any kind of football player, he already knows what he would choose.

“If I could create my perfect self, I would take Parker [Hesse’s] effort and want-to,” Epenesa said. “Everyone knows Parker’s effort was just the greatest anyone could ever ask for. Anthony Nelson’s technique and fundamentals. He’s just the most technical and fundamentally sound guy I know. Obviously, Matt [Nelson’s] size, he’s a big dude. I’d mix in my athleticism, and I think if I could create that, that would be great.”

While Epenesa may not have all of those attributes yet, he had plenty of time to learn from each teammate.

He entered the program as a heralded five-star recruit with offers from Alabama, Florida State, and Iowa, among others.

He spent two years listed as a backup on the depth chart as Hesse and Nelson closed out their college careers. Still, he kept pace.

Despite not seeing the field as often as the starters, Epenesa tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 sacks and 4 forced fumbles last season.

And with each season playing behind his elders, he learned.

“[I learned] just how to play, really,” Epenesa said. “Those guys really taught me how to do things the right way, how to eat, how to practice. Like I’ve always said, it was a blessing to play under those guys, and to watch them do what they do, and really just to learn from them.”

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Despite losing all four starters on the defensive line, the unit could still be one of Iowa’s best heading into the season.

Chauncey Golston is exploding with potential at defensive end opposite Epenesa. He has experience playing both inside and out and finished 2018 with 3.5 sacks and 9 tackles for a loss, with an interception as well.

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John Waggoner and Division-2 transfer Zach VanValkenburg could also play important roles in different rotations.

The tackles should be solid as well with Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff taking over as starters. Lattimore finished the season with 21 tackles and a sack in 12 games, and Reiff recorded 12 stops and a sack in six games.

Former Iowa Western transfer Daviyon Nixon brims with potential heading into the season as well. Nixon sat out with an academic redshirt in 2018 and entered the transfer portal before returning to the team. Now, the man who received a late offer from Alabama during his days as a Reiver adds more depth to a group that needs it.

“We got a lot of good guys in there,” Epenesa said. “We got Brady right there, we got Chauncey, and then we had a bunch of young guys that are coming up like John Waggoner, [defensive tackle] Noah Shannon, Daviyon.

“We got a lot of guys who can play ball. I’m very excited to see how they’re going to turn out. They had a good spring ball, they did really well. I’m expecting a big fall out of them, too. They’ve worked hard, they’ve earned some time on the field.”