The curse of being a dominant football player is the attention that comes with it.
A.J. Epenesa is a dominant football player, and the Hawkeye defensive end had a lot of attention at the beginning of the season. Opposing teams responded to the threat of the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Epenesa often with double-teams and adjusted blocking schemes.
Even though it wasn’t necessarily bad for Epenesa to steal attention and bodies from opposing offenses, it made for frustration on the stat sheet— that is, until Iowa’s game with Nebraska on Nov. 29.
Epenesa recorded a team-high 14 total tackles and two sacks against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, and his five tackles for loss matched the number of tackles for loss recorded by the entire Nebraska defense.
“I was having some success, and I was just around the ball all the time, and that’s just something I’ve been wanting to do all season long,” Epenesa said.
Epenesa didn’t even record 14 total tackles through his first five games of the season combined. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz attributed this massive script change to maturity and experience. Epenesa didn’t start a single game in his sophomore season despite leading the Big Ten in sacks; an expanded role in 2019 gives him even more time to grow.
“As they gain more experience, [good players] play faster, play harder, and play more efficiently,” Ferentz said. “I know everybody wanted to make him an All-American back in the offseason. I’m all for that, but he’s got some steps to take. I don’t know if he is or isn’t, but we wouldn’t want to trade him, that’s for sure.”
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Even more importantly, Epenesa exploded at the right moments in Lincoln. Both of his sacks in the game came in the second half, right in the middle of Nebraska’s 14-point comeback bid. With less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Epenesa came up with a big sack on Adrian Martinez, ending the Husker drive and crushing the momentum of their offense.
“It’s about wanting to get to the ball,” Epenesa said. “And if you really want to make plays, then it’s hard to keep you from the ball.”
Epenesa has 24 tackles (9.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in his team’s last four games. The relatively quiet games at the beginning of the season seem to be a distant memory for the junior now.
“He continued to fight,” defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said. “He continued to fight through double teams, and he just kept playing and keeping his head forward.”
Epenesa led a stunning defensive effort in the win over Nebraska. The Iowa defense doubled Nebraska in tackles for loss, and it recorded 29 more tackles than the Husker defense.
Epenesa’s stretch is serving some other purposes, as well. With a year of college eligibility remaining, the junior intuitively is catching the eyes of NFL scouts over his dominant end to the season. Recent mock drafts from football analysts pit Epenesa going early in the first round, and his stock is only rising.