Humble A.J. Epenesa A Perfect Fit for Hawkeye Football
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The outrage on social media was palpable. So much so, that A.J. Epenesa’s father took to his feed in hopes of calming down the hysteria.
Epenesa Epenesa explained that it made sense that his son was behind fifth-year senior Parker Hesse at defensive end on Iowa’s spring depth chart. Hesse had earned it and A.J.’s time would come.
It was a breath of fresh air in a world too often overrun with entitlement. It didn’t matter that A.J. Epenesa arrived on campus last summer as one of the most highly-rated recruits during Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years of running the program.
Last week, A.J. Epenesa spoke to the media for the first time since getting to college. Ferentz banned true freshmen from interviews years ago.
“I don’t think what my father said could have been any better,” A.J. said regarding the depth chart hubbub. “What he said is very true in the fact that Parker is a very experienced guy. For me, I believe it’s an honor for me to play behind him. Getting knowledge from him and learning from him is just as good as getting any coaching from the coaches in the D-Line room because he’s lived it.”
Hesse has started the last 33 games in which he’s been healthy enough to play. His 10.5 tackles for loss last year ranked second on the team behind unanimous first-team all-American Josey Jewell. He added four sacks, an interception, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
With he and Anthony Nelson starting, and Sam Brincks a capable third man at defensive end, most true freshmen wouldn’t have cracked the rotation. Epenesa wasn’t most true freshmen.
The 6-foot-5, 277-pound man child who could have played Division I basketball or track saw more action as last season advanced. His 4.5 sacks were second on the team to Nelson’s 7 and he led the squad with eight quarterback hurries. He added 5.5 tackles for loss.
Even with the early success, he remains very grounded. There’s a calmness about him that belies his years. It’s the way he was raised and his Polynesian roots. It’s very spiritual and focused. You get what you deserve through hard work.
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Hawkeye recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said Epenesa was a five-star recruit with a two-star attitude. It captured him well.
“It comes from from my parents. They always told me to put others before yourself,” A.J. said of his humbleness despite being in the spotlight since early in high school.
Epenesa Epenesa, who played at Iowa for the legendary Hayden Fry during the mid-’90s, would have his son retrieve the water bottles for all his teammates in pee-wee football. He handed them out despite being the star player.
Lessons like that keep things in perspective for A.J. He works hard improving all aspects of his craft, physically and mentally. He dedicates himself to the weight and film rooms so he gets the most of his ability.
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“I’m trying to perfect the little things,” he said. “Once I can do that, I think my game will elevate.”
Epenesa drew one of the largest crowds at media day. Reporters surrounded him throughout the afternoon. He calmly answered each question, thoughtfully and respectfully. It was sincere.
He knows eyes are on him and his reputation proceeds him. He understands others have high expectations for him. He welcomes it.
“The main goal is to always improve and being uncomfortable is one thing that can help you improve. You’re uncomfortable working to be comfortable in that situation,” A.J. said of being under the microscope. “That’s one thing I kind of like. Sometimes I get out of the uncomfortable zone and get into my comfort zone, but then I realize I need to make the uncomfortable zone comfortable.”
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Epenesa feels physically stronger with a much better grasp of the defense than a year ago at this time. He credits his coaches and teammates for that maturation.
He fits comfortably into Iowa’s culture. Maybe he’d be starting at another school, but then he wouldn’t be where he belonged.
“I don’t regret my decision at all. I love this program. I put my heart and soul into it. We come in here and work and get better every day. That’s the goal,” he said.
So, while it might disappoint some folks on the outside that he’s not starting in the season-opener against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1, Epenesa agrees with the coaches and his father.
“You get what you deserve and Parker deserves what he’s got right now and I don’t. He’s very talented and very smart and I’m on my way to try to be like that. He’s someone to look up to and try to be like. He’s set the bar pretty high and my goal is to try to pass that,” he said.
With his attitude, drive and talent, you’d be wise not to bet against him.