Schwartz: AJ Epenesa A Part, Not A Whole

July 4, 2019

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

Iowa’s season begins in 58 days, a shade over seven weeks from now, which means we still have a long, long time for national publications to throw accolades and build a mountain of expectations for Hawkeye defensive end AJ Epenesa.

The latest (that I’m aware of) came Tuesday from everyone’s favorite hotel newspaper, USA Today, which ranked Epenesa second among the nation’s top 10 defensive linemen. Among other things written about Epenesa was this line:

“Already labeled as a contender for the upper level of the NFL draft whether he leaves after his junior season or returns in 2020, Epenesa is the sort of piece that makes Iowa an under-the-radar New Year’s Six contender this fall.”

Epenesa deserves whatever praise he receives, and he will be rewarded in whichever NFL draft he enters, as the colorful national newspaper stated. But look harder at the words being used to describe him and you’ll come to understand why the expectations are not only excessive, but unrealistic.

The USA Today article, written by Paul Myerberg, doesn’t just say that Epenesa is a great player who’s going to dominate and become sought after by the NFL. No, it goes well beyond that. His mere presence in the Hawkeye football program elevates it to one capable of playing in a Rose-type of bowl game at the end of this season.

That might be true, but sheesh, the Hawkeyes will need a lot more than Epenesa if it’s going to make its way to an Orange, Fiesta, or Sugar Bowl. This is a team that lost so, so much after last season, more than most college football programs. Take a look at Hawkeyes serving as rookies on NFL teams and practice squads this coming fall and you’ll get a clearer picture of just how much they lost.

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I’m not trying to put words in Myerberg’s mouth. He didn’t write that Epenesa will singlehandedly lead the Hawkeyes to a national championship. However, to equate a New Year’s Six game with Epenesa’s mere presence is to not fully credit just how much of a team sport football is.

Baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport. Basketball is truly a team sport, but one great player can lead a team deep into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament or the NBA Finals, like Steph Curry’s Davidson team or Allen Iverson and the 2001 76ers.

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Football needs many excellent players to reach a New Year’s Six game, and the Hawkeyes aren’t there. Rather, they might be there, but we don’t know yet. Perhaps this is the year Nate Stanley puts it all together, or when a new defensive back climbs the mountain previously climbed by Desmond King, Josh Jackson, and Amani Hooker. Can Chauncey Golston be disruptive enough to allow Epenesa to dominate, a Batman to his Superman? How much will Ihmir Smith-Marsette progress?

The answers to all of these might be beyond all of our wildest dreams, but we don’t know yet. Epenesa might lead the nation in sacks and put up one of the greatest individual seasons in Iowa football history, but if the rest of the team isn’t there, New Year’s Six won’t be there, either. Epenesa can’t help the offensive line, the offensive backfield, or the special teams (at least not directly).

I think we all want the best for Epenesa, whether it’s positive news clippings, good health, a national championship, and a successful, lucrative NFL career. But let’s also keep college football in perspective.

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One player can help a team, but one player cannot be the team.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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