NFL Far from A.J. Epenesa’s Mind

April 3, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The talk is underway. Its volume will increase going forward.

A.J. Epenesa knows it’s out there. He chooses not to listen.

That might be hard to believe. Looking at what’s coming next is human nature.

Iowa’s junior defensive end is cut from a different mold, however. He has a knack for living in the moment. It’s coming in handy as discussion of him as an NFL Draft prospect picks up.

He’s not yet eligible for the upcoming selection process, which happens later this month. He will be at this time next year. And he’s projected to be one of the first players off of the board.

A decision on whether or not to leave comes after this season. Anything else would interfere.

“I like to enjoy things while I have them,” he said earlier this week. “I don’t know why I would want to think about the NFL while I’m here. I have everything that I could want right now. I have some of the best teammates I could ask for, I have a great facility, we got three out of the four trophies this season.”

Epenesa (6-6, 280) hasn’t started a college game, playing behind veteran Parker Hesse during his first two seasons. He still earned first-team all-Big Ten honors in 2018 from the media and landed on the coaches’ second team. As a part-time player, he led the conference and ranked 12th nationally with 10.5 sacks.

He wants more. He expects more. And that’s part of why he pushes NFL discussion out of his mind.

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“I’ve got things here that I’m bless to have. So, I’m trying to live is this moment and just enjoy all this. I have a house with teammates that we all enjoy and play video games. Everything that I enjoy is here,” Epenesa said.

“So, I’m just going to focus my mind on this and being the best I can be here at Iowa.”

In high school, he concentrated on academics, family, friends and football. He never got caught up in being one of the nation’s top recruits. He cherished those moments growing up and building relationships. It made him the person and player he is now.

That experience makes staying in the present now much easier. It’s his normal.

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“Honestly, I’ve been asked about the NFL before. I don’t pay any attention to it. I try to avoid that situation until that time comes in my career,” he said.

“They can just put me wherever the want (in mock drafts) and I could just not do well. And then it’s just all down the drain. So, I want to focus on being better at football, being better at school and just being a better person and then everything else will come naturally. “

Football novices can see Epenesa is dripping with talent. He remains humble. It comes from his parents.

His father, Epenesa Epenesa, played at Iowa. His godfather, Jared DeVries, also helped teach AJ about the Iowa football culture early on. It’s helped him fit in here as a “we” and not “me” guy.

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“You don’t find that skill set often. More rare is to find that skill set with that type of temperament. It just makes him a pleasure to coach,” Hawkeye defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said.

“And I can get on him and be hard with him and he understands there’s an expectation around here. He understands the standard here and he doesn’t want to let anyone down.”

AJ is working to show he can be a better all-around football player, a better leader and a more advanced student of the game. There’s plenty of unfinished business.

“It starts now in spring ball and then another lifting session over the summer and then fall camp. There’s a long time until the season and a lot of practices, so it’s just about taking multiple steps forward and showing I can improve my game and be better than I was last season,” he said.

Which will only increase the NFL noise around him. He’s not listening.

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