IOWA CITY — Replacing A.J. Epenesa will be a collaborative effort for the University of Iowa football team.
The dominating, game plan-altering presence the All-American defensive end provided whenever he stepped on the field for the Hawkeyes over the past three seasons cannot be replicated by any single player on the Iowa roster.
Now cutting his NFL teeth with the Buffalo Bills, Epenesa started just one season but as part of a rotation was able to collect 26.5 sacks during his three years in a Hawkeye uniform.
Last season, he finished with 11.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss before choosing to forego his final season of collegiate eligibility.
Epenesa may be gone, but there are other ways for the Hawkeyes to create a disruptive pass rush as they work to rebuild a defensive front four which has had to replace seven starters over the past two seasons.
Coaches believe the pieces are in place to make that happen.
"We’re going to miss A.J. and the other guys up front, but there are still ways to make things happen on the edge," Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "From the guys on the line to getting the linebackers involved, we’ve done it before and I am confident we can do it again."
That ability begins with the lone returning starter on the defensive line, fifth-year senior Chauncey Golston.
As offenses gave additional attention to Epenesa, that freed up the standout from Detroit to make a few plays of his own, and Golston responded.
He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 47 tackles including 9.5 for loss and three sacks of his own.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound end also intercepted one pass, broke up five more and finished the season with seven quarterback hurries.
It was a season filled with growth that defensive line coach Kelvin Bell would like to see continue as the Hawkeyes work toward an Oct. 24 season opener at Purdue.
"Chauncey’s maturation from when he got here in 2016 to where he is now, he just needs to continue playing because he’s on the right track," Bell said.
Bell doesn’t want Golston to be Epenesa.
He wants him to be the best version of Golston that he can be from one down to the next.
"There’s no pressure there. Play your game," Bell said. "I’m fully confident that if he goes out and plays the way he’s supposed to play, he can have a big year. He’s not A.J. They’re totally different guys. But the impact for us defensively, he’s definitely a guy we’re going to need to play well."
Golston understands that as well, viewing it as a shared objective.
"We don’t think about needing to replace A.J. We think more about trying to be the best defense we can be by each guy being as productive as he can be," Golston said. "A.J. leaving, it leaves a void so we are all stepping up and trying to do our job. Each of us have a role to fill. If we all do that, it will work."
Bell believes another fifth-year senior, tackle Austin Schulte, is positioned to help Golston bring along a young group of defensive linemen.
The 6-4, 283-pound Pella, Iowa, native has overcome injuries early in his career to find a spot in a defensive line rotation which Bell expects to continue this season to the degree that Iowa’s depth allows.
Schulte saw action in all 13 games a year ago, starting two. He and junior Daviyon Nixon were listed as the starting tackles on the Hawkeyes’ preseason depth chart.
Bell praises Schulte’s attention to detail and sees immense potential in Nixon, who recorded three sacks among his 29 tackles last season.
"Daviyon needs to be a good teammate, period," Bell said. "When I talk about being a good teammate that is setting an example and then holding others accountable to that example. If he can do those two things, the sky is the limit."
Zach VanValkenburg, a graduate transfer who arrived at Iowa a year ago from Hillsdale College in Michigan, opened camp as the other starting defensive end.
Sophomores Joe Evans, John Waggoner and Noah Shannon, redshirt freshman Logan Lee from Orion and graduate transfer Jack Heflin are all in the mix for spots in the rotation and several, including Waggoner and Lee, have shown the flexibility to line up inside or out.
"We recruit defensive linemen," Bell said. "And everybody at some point in time is going to go inside just because I want them to know it. If you need a spare tire, you don’t care if goes on the front, the right, the left, just get it on the car."
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