CHICAGO — Instead of stuffing himself into a suit and tossing down banquet food in a hotel ballroom Friday at the Big Ten kickoff, A.J. Epenesa spent time with teammates tossing around bales of hay at another mid-summer tradition, Solon Beef Days.
For years, the Johnson County community celebration has provided Iowa football players and other university students with a chance to get away from campus and relax a bit.
A few photos on Twitter seemed to indicate Epenesa was having a pretty good time without being surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras in a conference room.
The Hawkeyes’ returning all-Big Ten defensive end was not among the three players Iowa selected to send to the conference’s annual media days, a decision coach Kirk Ferentz said Friday was “nothing personal.’’
He quickly pointed out that “A.J. hasn’t started a game.’’
That’s accurate, although he has helped decide a few in a reserve role as part of a deep rotation that Iowa has featured on its defensive front in recent seasons.
Epenesa steps into a bigger role this season and the personable, well-spoken defender who led the Big Ten in sacks last season would have shared a good story as the conference’s annual kickoff event.
He didn’t get that chance, but Ferentz did spend time fielding questions about the 6-foot-6, 280-pound end who is filling spots on plenty of preseason all-American teams.
“He’s got phenomenal ability and he’s got a great attitude and done a lot of good things on the field for us,’’ Ferentz said.
“But, he still has a lot of room for improvement. When he really figures out how to use all those skills he has, it’s going to be a lot of fun for him.’’
Epenesa echoed that notion last month, suggesting he still has room to grow as he prepares for his first collegiate start and is working toward that consistency on a daily basis.
He was one of 10 players named prior to the kickoff to the Big Ten’s preseason honors list and was one of four on that list who were not at the event.
Like Epenesa, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, defensive end Chase Young and Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos are all juniors and both of those programs sent only seniors to Chicago.
Ferentz traditionally has done the same, reserving the three spots Iowa receives for players at the Big Ten kickoff for players in their final season.
It was news when Josey Jewell was selected to attend as a junior in 2016, something Nate Stanley did a year ago as well.
Stanley returned for the session again this year on Thursday and Friday in steamy downtown Chicago, joined by senior defensive back Michael Ojemudia and fourth-year junior running back Toren Young.
Ferentz said he could have selected “any one of nine or 10 guys’’ to accompany him to this year’s Big Ten kickoff.
He feels that strongly about the leadership he sees developing on this year’s team and the Big Ten does encourage schools to bring players from a variety of positions.
“Hopefully, he’s standing with us here next year,’’ Ferentz said, referencing the questioned absence of Epenesa.
Ferentz said the same a year ago when junior tight end Noah Fant was left on the outside looking in when invitations to the Big Ten event were distributed.
Fant had other priorities. He's preparing this week for the start of the Denver Broncos training camp.