Out to Prove His Worth Full Time – Profiling A.J. Epenesa

Photo: USA Today

The son of a father that was born in America Samoa, which is a small area located within the South Pacific Ocean. The man known as "Repeat" because of having the same first and last name, Epenesa Epenesa, was the leader of a unique Polynesian family household.

Evolving to the nickname "Eppy", he started off as a defensive lineman at Iowa Wesleyan, which is a small college located on the outskirts of Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Playing two seasons there, he was eventually offered a walk-on slot at Iowa. He was told that if he did a serviceable job on the scout team and showed progress that he would be rewarded with a scholarship at seasons end.

With plenty to play for, Eppy successfully accomplished this task and thus marked the beginning of what would become a Hawkeye family to and through.

The eldest Espenesa worked his way into being a scholarship player and key contributor as a defensive tackle on the 1996 and 1997 teams. It wasn't without help from a somewhat forgotten about valuable NFL player though.

His dorm roommate was former Chargers standout receiver Tim Dwight. He experienced his heyday with the then San Diego team from 2001-2004 and he credits a lot of his collegiate and life success to him.

A former fourth-round selection in the 1998 draft of the Atlanta Falcons, Dwight was a two-time All-American at Iowa, that experienced a 10-year professional career.

Coincidentally, 1998 was a special year for both. In a Kansas City hospital, Eppy and his wife, Stephanie, welcomed their son, A.J. to the world.

The family resided in Illinois. Hundreds of miles away from Kinnick Stadium, but that didn't stop Eppy from raising his kids from cheering on the black and gold in front of their living room TV.

A family full of avid Hawkeye fans, A.J. vividly remembers the exciting times when the family would gather around in hopes of cheering the team on to victory. 

Growing up in the small town of Edwardsville, Epenesa loved football, but his parents didn't allow him to play until fourth-grade because of the vigorous demands of the game.

It was a tough situation for A.J. to deal with, especially seeing all of his neighborhood friends participating in local youth leagues while he was forced to sit and watch their enjoyment of the game that he always dreamed of playing. 

Opting to play basketball, his parents vowed to keep their son and his three other siblings involved in as many activities as possible during their childhood.

Following his freshman season at Edwardsville High School, he attended a Nike national football camp in Chicago. This is the point where his name began to generate buzz. As a 6-foot-3, 240 pound, 15-year old, scouts and recruiting services began to ask "who is this guy?". After being named MVP of the camp, his stock soared nationally.

247Sports and Scout.com rated the small town defensive end not only as the top recruit in the state of Illinois, but the top ranked edge rusher in the country. Even big schools such as Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State began to offer him.

June 4, 2014 is a day that he'll never forget. Before all of the fame and notoriety during the summer camp circuits, it was Iowa, the team that gave his father a chance back in 1996 as a no-name walk-on defensive tackle who was now, nearly two decades later, the first team to offer another member of the Epenesa family yet another opportunity.

A chance to follow in his fathers footsteps and don the colors he once proudly owned was an opportunity that he couldn't pass up. 

On January 16, 2016, A.J. made it official with his pledge to Iowa. The prize of the 2017 recruiting class, he became the only five-star recruit to sign with Kirk Ferentz since taking over as the programs head coach in 1999.

Epenesa became the first five-star pledge to the program since Tony Moeaki, Dan Doering, Dace Richardson, who were all recruits from Illinois that were a part of the illustrious 2005 crop.

A historic high school career, whose accomplishments expanded much further than the gridiron, Epenesa's upbringing and playing in other sports outside of football translated to success in other arenas as a teenager.

As a junior discus thrower, he set an Illinois state record with a throw of 205-11 and cruised to the state title as a senior. An all-state selection in basketball, he scored over 1,000 points and became just the 21st player in program history to accomplish the feat. 

A three-time All-State selection on the gridiron, his arrival came with plenty of hype and much was to be expected of the recruit that carried the reputation that he did. 

Not listed as a starter coming out of his first training camp, he was a bit discouraged, but the art of patience is a trait that has been instilled in him for quite some time. Just like his father did while making plays at Iowa Wesleyan and eventually for the Hawkeyes, he told his son that he had to stay ready and no matter how his opportunities come that he had to make the most of them when they surfaced.

Doing exactly that, Epenesa was used mostly on passing down situations and on special teams. The star rusher recorded 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks during his true freshman season. A now 6-foot-6, 280 pound frame that still needed development, but he was beginning to scratch the surface of his true development.

Last season, behind Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse, Epenesa once again remained in his backup spot. Despite playing in only 35 percent of the teams defensive snaps, he still went on to record 10.5 sacks – the most by a Hawkeye defender since Adrian Clayborn in 2009. 

A first-team All-Big Ten selection, Epenesa has assuredly paid his dues during his first two seasons with the program. Now, as a junior, it is finally time for the former five-star recruit to show and prove to be worthy of the hype that he garnered prior to coming to campus.

Epenesa will be included on every pre-season watchlist in the country and having never started a game, his success has already been aplenty. With his prosperity in previous seasons and the potential of being a top draft selection next April, many evaluators will have their eyes closely on the Hawkeyes edge rusher.

From wearing his Tim Dwight No. 6 Iowa jersey as a youngster to now carrying on his fathers legacy along the defensive line inside Kinnick Stadium, A.J. Epenesa already has the attention of many, but now in a full-time role, those evaluators will want to see how he performs now that he is an every down player. 

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of ClimbingThePocket.com. Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.