As the NFL Draft quickly approaches, one Hawkeye continues to slide down draft boards. When AJ Epenesa declared for the draft he was a consensus first-round pick with some having him going as high as top-10. Now, you will seldomly find AJ Epenesa located anywhere in the first round.
So, why the sudden change? It’s the same thing that happened to Desmond King, the disappointing combine numbers out-weighed the film.
AJ had an incredible career at Iowa and will go down in Iowa history as one of the best defensive linemen in school history. Epenesa came in with extraordinary expectations. 24/7 Sports had him as the 27th ranked recruit nationally, the highest defensive end and the highest-rated recruit in Illinois. His father Eppy played for the Hawks in the late 90s. Iowa was his first offer.
Every single expectation was met and even exceeded. He came on strong his freshman year, finishing with 4.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL, and a forced fumble, despite playing in only eight games and getting named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
His sophomore season will go down in history books as one of the most efficient seasons by a defensive lineman in Iowa history, ever. He was underutilized, in the sense that it seemed like he should be out there every down. Not to say that wasn’t the right decision for his career or that Kirk, Phil Parker, and defensive line coach Kelvin Bell didn’t have a plan for him. AJ struggled in run defense early on, but when Iowa found themselves in a 3rd down and needed a sack they called AJ. And he excelled in that role. He would finish his sophomore season with 10.5 sacks, 16.5 TFL, and 4 forced fumbles. He led the Big Ten in sacks, forced fumbles (finished 9th nationally) and was 3rd in the Big Ten in tackles for loss.
His junior year came with a few questions marks, was it a stamina issue? Could he continue to produce at such a high-level with the increased exposure and facing double-teams and being chipped every play? He started the season slow, statistically. AJ tallied just one sack in the first four games against inferior opponents. But if you watch the film from those games, he was effecting every play. Either he was being doubled opening up opportunities for others or pressured the quarterback by taking the offensive lineman into the quarterback.
Most fans understood and could see what was happening but for the first time there was a minority of Hawkeye fans who were doubting. He answered. He found a sack against Michigan, then another against Penn State. And then under the bright lights of Kinnick Stadium against a top-10 “rival”, AJ took over, finishing with 2.5 sacks and none bigger than the final drive to effectively ice the game.
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Epenesa’s final game as a Hawkeye was just as you’d expect, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The forced fumble leading to a grueling elbow injury to the USC starting quarterback which effectivley ended the game. He would end his junior season with 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and the impact of being doubled, chipped and blocking running backs opened up countless opportunities for other defensive linemen.
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Epenesa isn’t the first Hawkeye this is happening too, Desmond King had a tough combine and slid all the way to the fifth round. AJ will certainly not be around in third round, let alone the fifth round but the precedent stands. NFL Scouts who look at production over combine numbers will see know what kind of player they are getting.
And whoever ends up with AJ whether it be in the late first round or second, is getting an absolute stud. The numbers, results, and film speak for themselves. Without a pro-day, AJ, unfortunately, wasn’t given another shot to improve his numbers so he will likely continue to slide down draft picks because two 40 yard dashes outweigh three years of incredible production.