2020 NFL Draft: A.J. Epenesa quietly shows improvement in 2019 opener

Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images /

Top 2020 NFL Draft prospect A.J. Epenesa did not fill up the stat sheet in Iowa’s season opener, but he did show significant improvement.

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is one of the top NFL Draft prospects in all of college football. He was an absolute star for the Hawkeyes last season, finishing the year with 16.5 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-leading 10.5 sacks. His production alone was impressive, but it is even more eye-popping when you consider that Epenesa was a part-time player for the Hawkeyes in 2018.

Iowa was loaded with veteran talent up front last season, and while Epenesa was the most talented player of the group, Kirk Ferentz is an old school dude. He is going to play his veterans when he can and the Hawkeyes had a good group of veterans up front. Epenesa was primarily used as an edge rusher in obvious passing situations and he made an impact on the game week-in and week-out in that role.

We are all excited to see what Epenesa can do in an expanded role this season. He is already a top-tier 2020 NFL Draft prospect, and if he continues to produce at a high level in an expanded role up front, the sky is the limit.

The Hawkeyes opened up their 2019 campaign with a 38-14 victory over Miami (OH). If you did not watch the game, I would not blame you for thinking that Epenesa did not make much of an impact. He was only credited with one total tackle and one pass defended. He was not able to consistently close on the quarterback like we saw last season, but that does not mean that Epenesa had a bad day.

Miami clearly had Epenesa as the focus of their gameplan, double-teaming him on almost every play and even sending three blockers his way at times. Epenesa will likely see this kind of attention all season long, but he dealt with it well and looked like a much more mature player.

We still saw some burst around the edge and his fantastic natural strength, but Miami made sure to get the ball out quickly and always had a least a second guy to chip Epenesa. This prevented him from creating consistent pressure in the pass rush, which is disappointing, but the raw talent was clearly still present.

Epenesa played extremely under control on Saturday night. Before, he always immediately attacked the ball carrier against the run. In his 2019 debut, Epenesa set the edge extremely well. He simply was not going to let the ball carrier around the corner. This created opportunities for his teammates to make plays while Epenesa simply did his job and set up the play.

We know that Epenesa is talented. He can dominate against any college competition. However, it was extremely nice to see him start to think the game on the same level. This guy is turning into an extremely smart and aware football player who understands his job and always performs it well.

Next. 2020 NFL Mock Draft. dark

This kind of performance is not going to get Epenesa many headlines, but it is necessary for his NFL draft status. He may not have put up gaudy numbers, but A.J. Epenesa was impressive in his season debut for the Hawkeyes.