Congratulations! You've been selected to play the role of Benjamin Solak on the Locked On NFL Draft podcast. Which exclamation would you like to use?
A) Heavens to Betsy!
B) Oh My Lanta!
D) Jiminy Christmas!
When I watched A.J. Epenesa film this past week, I dang near lost my mind. The fact that he isn't the talk of every draft analyst -- that he isn't mentioned with Jerry Jeudy and D'Andre Swift and Grant Delpit as the crown jewels of this upcoming 2020 class -- baffles me. Epenesa is not only a tremendous film watch, he's fun for the whole family: NFL heads will love his football background (his father, Epenesa Epenesa, also played at Iowa) and no-nonsense demeanor; analytic minds will appreciate his production across his short career as a backup; film eaters will turn on the tape and never want to turn it back off.
Let's touch a little on that background. As Jordan Reid nicely profiled a few weeks ago, Epenesa is the highest-ranked recruit to ever roll through Kirk Ferentz's Iowa tenure, and went to the school in large part because of his father's legacy there. Epenesa was an All-State athlete in discus, basketball, and football in Illinois, and by all accounts, did his time as a backup without complaint. NFL teams are gonna gobble all that up.
And a bit deeper into the production: Epenesa made the First-Team Big 10 squad last year with 10.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs. That may sound confusing, because I've been talking about Epenesa filling his roll as a backup. Yup: he made First-Team Big 10 while playing roughly 40% of the defensive snaps for Iowa.
10.5 sacks. Didn't even play half the time. I don't know much, but that's gotta be good.
Now, all this means bupkis if the film isn't there to support gaudy stats and a strong background -- and with Epenesa, it is. An absolute steamroller of a human being at 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds, Epenesa freely and frequently ragdolls offensive tackles at the point of attack. The ease with which he handles pro-sized bodies and exchanges power is reminiscent of an NFL prospect playing at the FCS level -- not a Power 5 competitor.
I mean, there's domination here, from a rotational sophomore player. To say that we are scratching the surface -- and this is what the surface looks like -- illustrates the infatuation with Epenesa's tape I'm currently enduring. There's pure upper body power and pure bull-rush lower body power here in spades.
But Epenesa isn't just a tank, and that's what really takes things to a potentially special level. For a player of 280 pounds -- heck, for a player of 260 pounds! -- Epenesa is able to clear his hips, get his feet pointed toward the quarterback, and flatten his angle to the QB's set point at an astounding click.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you this is the cleanest corner that ever existed -- it isn't. But this ain't a Ferrari wrapping around this bend, it's a Mack truck. For a player of Epenesa's size to have the necessary hip mobility to rush with tilt and turn these two-handed swats into pressures, sacks, and forced fumbles immediately makes him a massive problem for college offensive tackles. Is he going to rush with power? Or is he going to sucker you in with that flash of color before he darts outside of your frame and slices into the quarterback?
NFL offensive tackles aren't going to have an easy answer to that problem, either.
But that's not all, folks.
Epenesa has at least two speeds, right? He has the power to rush through you and compromise pocket integrity, and then the agility and flexibility to get to your outside shoulder and flip his hips into the pocket. But if and when you over-set to answer that outside rush, or if he misses on the swat and fails to soften the outside edge track, Epenesa leverages his length, power, and quickness to work back inside.
He has counter rush moves developed. Vision, levelheadedness, hand placement, and balance/flexibility. This is a graceful athlete in a lumberjack's frame, and he has the technical skill to marry the traits and produce NFL-quality rushes from both a mental and physical perspective. Oh man, I'm getting jazzed again just typing this out.
BUT THAT'S NOT ALL, FOLKS.
Okay, it kinda is. Really, we must note that a 6-foot-6 player is generally going to have issues reducing his surface area and dipping his shoulder into and through his outside track rushes -- especially when that frame is as filled out as Epenesa's is. To keep that much mass on track, at such a steep angle, is a ridiculous ask.
*puts hand to ear*
Oh, I'm -- I'm sorry folks, I'm getting word that there's breaking news on this topic. Let's cut live to our reporters in the field.
Listen, this is the only good example I can find of Epenesa successfully ducking a punch and keeping his rush track tight enough to affect the QB. (This would have been a sack from EDGE 98 Anthony Nelson, if not for a penalized hold.) I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Epenesa has slippery, shoulder-dipping bend. But if he continues to unlock this aspect of his athleticism and integrate it into technique, herd up the cows and saddle the horses, cowboys -- it's time to go home. Show's over, good night, the end, that's it, sayonara, hasta la vista, pack it in, ball game.
As it stands, Epenesa is a devastating power rusher with an effective outside rush game and a set of counters he's willing to work to capitalize on the inside track. His ability to rush with tilt and length to finish are devastating in the quarterback's cylinder, and regularly turn into high impact plays (sacks/forced fumbles), as well as opening opportunities for his fellow defensive linemen. He wins one-on-one in both the run and pass game and will demand schemed attention at the college level this year. As he looks to continue refining some of his rush moves (long-arm, long-arm snatch-trap, dip) he will only grow all the more dangerous.
Ohio State EDGE Chase Young is a splendid young player, who apparently dealt with health issues last year and may turn out a renewed season in 2019. Penn State EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos and Florida EDGE Jabari Zuniga have every physical tool the NFL likes, as well as some disruption production. Notre Dame EDGE Julian Okwara and Syracuse EDGE Alton Robinson are lightning quick, bendy rushers that tease high pro ceilings as dedicated edge benders.
Keep 'em all. Don't need 'em. Give me A.J. Epenesa, his impossible athleticism, his ungodly success rate, and that one stupid clip of him dipping a punch against Mississippi State. That's all I'll need all season, thank you kindly.