IOWA CITY — A.J. Epenesa is honored and humbled to hear his name mentioned in elite company as the earliest of 2020 NFL draft projections are released.
As analysts talk about the potential they see in the Iowa junior defensive end, some regarding him as a top-10 selection if he chooses to forego his senior year of eligibility, Epenesa talks about potential as well.
His thoughts have nothing to do with the next level.
He said Tuesday that discussion is for after the season.
Instead, Epenesa thinks about what he can do to become a more complete player while seeing additional snaps at end after splitting time with starter Parker Hesse last season.
As the Hawkeyes work to replace starters at all four defensive line positions, Epenesa is curious about how he can be more like Hesse, more like end Anthony Nelson and more like tackle Matt Nelson, all now taking their skills to the NFL.
“If I could create my perfect self, I would take Parker’s effort and want, Anthony’s technique and fundamentals and Matt’s size and mix it with my athleticism,’’ Epenesa said.
“That’s something we were talking about as a group the other day, what the perfect end would be, but after thinking about it, all of those things can come to fruition. I’m close, but there’s a long way to go though.’’
That motivates the Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-6, 280-pound end who earned first team all-Big Ten honors a year ago despite not starting a game for Iowa.
Dominant at times while leading the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and finishing second in the conference by forcing four fumbles last season, Epenesa said he sees no reason why he can’t work to match the consistency Hesse put into his game.
“Parker embodied what you want a starting end to be with the attitude he brought to the position, the energy he plays the game with,’’ Epenesa said. “He was just so sound in how he went about things. He’s in the NFL now because he embodied the Hawkeye way of doing things.’’
Epenesa also believes he can work to become a more consistent technician at his position like Anthony Nelson, but concedes matching Matt Nelson’s 6-8 height might be a stretch.
Mostly, he wants to put what he has learned from all three of those players to work for him as Iowa prepares to debut its next generation of starters on the defensive front.
“Having these past two years under my belt has been great. Those guys showing me how to do it, that makes it a lot easier,’’ Epenesa said. “All of those things they brought to our line, they can be real.’’
Epenesa expects to use what he has learned to craft his game this season.
After counting 16.5 tackles for a loss among his collection of 37.5 tackles as a sophomore, he will work to continue to be a game changer for Iowa.
He returned one of the four fumbles he caused last season for a touchdown, he blocked a punt and he broke up four passes while creating general havoc for opposing offenses.
Epenesa expects to see additional attention from opponents this season, and he’s fine with that.
“They’ll be introduced to Chauncey Golston and what he can do at the other end,’’ Epenesa said. “My plan is to play my game and do what I can do to help us win games.’’
He welcomes expanded opportunities that could accompany moving into a starting role for Iowa.
“I’m excited. I want to be on the field more, every player does. That’s natural,’’ Epenesa said. “I’ve waited for my turn and my time has come. Just like when the guys before us were ready to go when they got their opportunity, I’m working to be ready for that as well.’’
If that works as Epenesa hopes, then he may start to entertain thoughts about what the future could hold.
“Even though it’s pretty cool to hear your name mentioned, I try not to think about all that right now. I don’t want it to detract from other things,’’ Epenesa said. “I don’t want it to interfere with my year.’’