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Iowa Player to Watch: AJ Epenesa

An Illinois native and top recruit in the state, Epenesa has more than lived up to the hype.

Nebraska v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman AJ Epenesa is back for his junior season, ready to continue his already impressive career in Iowa City. He was the Big Ten’s sack leader and forced fumble leader in 2018 and his 17 tackles for loss were good for 3rd in the conference.

He’s not just a speed guy off the snap, he’s one of those rare defensive linemen eager and skilled enough to make a play on the ball.

His best career game was against... Illinois.

I am serious when I say this: I still have nightmares of 63-0. It haunts me at night. I think about it during the day, and I worry that it’s a feeling that won’t go away. Against the Illini in 2018, Epenesa had 8.0 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

In addition to forcing a fumble in the game, he also nabbed a scoop-and-score touchdown, further humiliating Illinois in what was THE lowest of the lows moment in the Lovie Smith era [See second/bottom video here]:

Anthony Nelson is gone, but Hawkeyes still loaded up front

Defensive end Anthony Nelson (9.5 sacks in 2018) was drafted in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s hard to replace that production, but at the other starting DE spot on the opposite side of AJ Epenesa will be Chauncey Golston.

Golston’s a bit of a late bloomer and not as highly coveted as Epenesa, but really came on late in the season in 2018. He had big games against Northwestern and Illinois, and even recorded an interception in Iowa’s Outback Bowl win versus Mississippi State.

Double-teaming Epenesa is a double-edged sword knowing that Chauncey Golston is capable of wreaking havoc in the defensive backfield.

In between Nelson and Epenesa are two moderately-experienced defensive tackles in seniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff.

Iowa plays smart, controlled football on offense. That will help Epenesa and the defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Iowa at Illinois
Iowa QB Nate Stanley is 16-9 in 25 games as Iowa’s starter.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Senior quarterback Nathan Stanley has played a ton of football games for the Iowa Hawkeyes — 25 starts in three seasons. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes or force a lot of throws. Even though he offers next to nothing running the football, he’s a steady pocket passer who knows exactly how to run his offense.

As a full time starter in 2017 and 2018, he’s thrown 52 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions for an average completion percentage of 57.5. That percentage is not great, and he’ll likely have to get that above 60 percent to really impress NFL scouts, but the low interception numbers are encouraging and definitely good enough to win a bunch of games.

Time of possession is often a misleading stat when it comes to team success — it does however mean that a defense has plenty of time to rest and is not on the field so much, which can do wonders for power guys like Epenesa. In 2018, Iowa ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in average time of possession per game. Only Michigan and Michigan State were better.

Can AJ Epenesa lead Iowa to a Big Ten West title? The schedule is rough.

Iowa State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa’s defensive rankings were elite last season: 11th in scoring, 12th in rushing, 17th in passing and 7th in total defense. The Hawkeyes finished 9-4 but went through a three-game losing streak in late October, early November with losses to Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern — the last of which was a home game at night.

Iowa’s non-conference slate is a bit tricky considering it includes games against Middle Tennessee State and Iowa State (both won eight games last year), and the Hawkeyes have to travel to Ames in 2019. In Week 2, Iowa hosts Rutgers — a rare, early Big Ten matchup and the earliest conference game since Kirk Ferentz took over the program nearly 50 years ago [Joke].

Cross-divisional games are home against Rutgers, at Michigan and versus Penn State. Not exactly a walk in the park for these Hawkeyes. On top of that, Iowa’s biggest threats in the Big Ten West come from Nebraska and Wisconsin — and Iowa gets both of those on the road.

If AJ Epenesa can continue to flourish, he’ll be a top-10 NFL Draft pick

Five defensive ends were drafted in the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft, two of which (Nick Bosa and Clelin Ferrell) were drafted top-5. Considering how much emphasis is placed on the defensive end position, it’s entirely possible Epenesa can be an early first round draft pick.

Iowa is putting a ton of players in the NFL. AJ Epenesa stands to be the next one taken.