RANKING: 5 STAR
POSITION: DEFENSIVE END
COMMITTED TO: IOWA
SCHOOL: EDWARDSVILLE HIGH SCHOOL (ILLINOIS)
EVALUATION: A.J. Epenesa is a five-star prospect so of course he's very talented and skilled. But the first thing that jumped off the page when I made the trip Friday evening to watch him play was his sheer size. He's listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds and the 6-foot-5 part is definitely correct. However, I bet he's north of 270 pounds now, and approaching the 280-285 range. That does not mean his future is necessarily at defensive tackle, although he could play it and maybe he begins there in Iowa City out of necessity.
His ceiling is much higher at defensive end. When you're that big and that quick off the edge and have the quick-twitch to beat offensive tackles off the ball with regularity, it's scary. He's a five-star because of his ability to remain as a defensive end and it has to do with his athleticism and burst. That is easily evidenced in some of the clips above where he beats the tackle and has an easy route to the quarterback. He dips those hips and takes a short route.
Epenesa's strength is already college-ready because of his size. He isn't facing the best talent in the film above but he throws around the opponent across from him with relative ease. It won't be as simple at the next level but his size and strength put him in the 2-deep right away. He can beat you with speed and quickness off the edge and he has the strength to withstand the bigger and more massive offensive linemen at the next level. And he will only get much stronger in a college strength and conditioning program. He may not get too much bigger as his frame doesn't suggest there's a lot more good weight to be added. He's filled out the frame and has grown into his body at a very early stage.
He's got the speed move down off the edge. Epenesa can also bull rush though it will be much more difficult for him to do so in a year. What he can improve on is hand placement and usage. The five-star senior doesn't rely on his hands much right now and he doesn't have to. But against stronger and more physical and skilled linemen, he will. It may be a part of his arsenal and he just didn't need to pull it out on Friday. However, it's a part of his game and some technique work that he'll receive early from assistant Reese Morgan in Iowa City. He should have no problem doing so because he'll have the strength to rip through with his hands and the power. He'll just need the technique.
I was pleased to see his snap-to-whistle effort. As you may have noticed, the opposition steered clear from him as much as possible and ran away from him. He did not let that affect him mentally and still kept working and never let it cause him to lose focus, nor did he give up on any plays even though he wasn't at the focus. It's pretty easy as the back-side defensive end not to chase down plays but that didn't occur with Epenesa. He did maintain backside discipline but as soon as it was in material, he ran down the ball. That's effort and focus and discipline and he brought it all to the table.
Not only is he a sensational talent, a physical specimen, and a rare talent, but he plays well-coached and with maturity and all-out effort even when the play wasn't within his reach.
CONCLUSION: He's a massive human being and a grown man that possesses rare athleticism that is uncommon for someone that size. There's been comparisons to Joey Bosa but I do not see that. He's bigger than Bosa or at least will be. Bosa is on the lighter side for defensive ends and is more along the lines of a Jared Allen mold. I'm not saying this is who he will be, or that he's going to be this caliber of player (although he very well could be) but Epenesa is more of a J.J. Watt mold due to his sheer size and width. He's got a long ways to go in development, mostly in technique, to be Watt, but that's the style and mold I would compare Epenesa to.
As far as impact, when it happens, and where, that's a tricky subject. Iowa will return all of the defensive ends at their disposal this year in Anthony Nelson, Matt Nelson, and Parker Hesse. They're set to lose two defensive tackles in Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson. So while his ceiling of potential is higher at end, the biggest way he can help Iowa right away may be inside. They'll have Nathan Bazata and Cedrick Lattimore, with Jake Hulett and Michael Slater (who has never proven to stay healthy) waiting in the wings.
But if they feel like they just want to plug him in right away and watch him go to work and flourish at the position he will hold for a long, long time, that's on the edge.