By Simon Carroll

The second draft prospect preview of the year, Si breaks down the gametape of one of the most feared edge rushers in college football…

Hawkeye Through & Through

AJ Epenesa

He didn’t start a game for The Hawkeyes last year.

If that doesn’t scare big Ten offenses, it should. Iowa defensive end Andrew Jared ‘AJ’ Epenesa recorded 10.5 sacks in a season where he was behind Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse on the depth chart. Both of those guys have gone to the NFL, and Epenesa is now in line to start opposite Chauncey Golston on the Hawkeye’s four man front. I would say that the stars have aligned for him to take his opportunity in 2019 but with a career that already boasts 52 total tackles, 15 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 4 passes defended it seems a little like closing the stable door once the horse has bolted. Named as a pre-season 1st team All-American and on the watchlist for the Bronco Nagurski award, Epenesa is hardly flying under the radar.

Born in Oak Park Kansas and attending high school in Edwardsville Illinois, there was only ever one place Epenesa was going to play college football. His father Eppy Epenesa walked on at Iowa after moving to the USA from American Samoa, and AJ followed in his footsteps. He was a highly rated recruit with offers from twenty schools including Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma. So it was no surprise that he made splash plays in his freshman year.

It was as a sophomore last year that Epenesa truly showcased his ability. Iowa utilised him on roughly 30 snaps per game (the defense averaged just over 64), usually on third down. He was named to the Big Ten All-Conference team of 2018 and is widely regarded as one of the best edge rushers in all of college football. His 2019 season will prove to be a crucial one as he looks to showcase his talents to the NFL fraternity and establish himself at the top of a talented position group.

With that in mind, let’s break down the prospect:

The Measurables

AJ Epenesa

At 6’6” and 280lbs, Epenesa is a big man. Playing predominantly on the right side of a four man front, you usually see him in a three point stance. But when stood up loitering at the line of scrimmage he looks like an absolute giant. His huge athletic frame gives him all the power needed to dominate at his position. It will be interesting to see his actual length when it comes to the pre-draft process. Those look like incredibly long arms which, as we will discuss, are invaluable to his game. And he has the speed and athleticism to terrorise tackles off the snap. Again, we’ll come to this in more detail shortly. But it’s safe to say that Epenesa is going to have no trouble passing all the measurables tests that the NFL will throw at him.


Competing with Epenesa must be frustrating, because he’s an absolute nightmare to move off his spot. This core strength suffocates the run game as offensive linemen can’t widen lanes for the ball carrier. The more explosive power can be seen when Epenesa bulldozes his way through linemen en route to the quarterback, often just discarding tackles at will. Watch in this clip as he bull rushes the linemen AND ignores a chip block from the running back before disrupting the pass and making the play:


Epenesa has the athleticism to fire out his stance very quickly and catch an offensive line cold. When he does it it’s damn near unplayable. Here he is just breezing through one of the best offensive lines in football last year. The rush move is good but it’s the hair trigger release off the line that is most impressive:

Now any pass rusher will tell you they need to mix it up, keep his opponent on their toes. But Epenesa is inconsistent with his speed off the snap. It’s a big body to be exploding out of a three point stance each play, but ramping up the frequency with which he fires into the backfield will help his growth this season.


You can marvel at Epenesa’s natural physicality and athleticisim all you want. To me, the greatest attribute to his game are his hands. Hand usage and placement in the college game is hit and miss at best. But in the NFL, it’s more often than not the difference between success and failure for a defensive lineman. As a 4-3 end Epenesa has shown his value in both the run and passing game, and a lot of it is to do with his hands…

I could show multiple examples of the play below. Epenesa is quick to diagnose the run, and instead of launching into the tackle he locks his arms out and holds him at a distance, using that power we mentioned to anchor down. This serves two purposes; firstly, it stops the tackle from getting close and manipulating him away from the action. Secondly it allows him to set the edge and force the runner inside. Once the ball carrier makes his way through the line Epenesa can disengage, shed the lineman and break off to make a play:

The timing of hand placement in this situation is key. Reach too early and you’ll lose leverage. Too late and the lineman is inside you. Epenesa consistently wins the hand battle on run plays.

Hand technique when rushing the passer is just as important, and Epensea has that in his repertoire as well. Being around football all is life it’s no surprise to learn he has an array of pass-rush moves at his disposal. Watch carefully Epensa’s hand usage as he rips around the outside of the lineman. There’s no real swim move, just excellent placement into the lineman’s numbers, easing him to the left as he glides round his opposite shoulder:

This next one is arguably even more impressive. Watch him attack the Mississipi State left tackle in the Outback Bowl last year. He brings his usual outside pass rush move, but the lineman kick steps nicely and is ready for it. Epenesa resets his hands, works them inside and uses his opponent’s momentum to counter rush to the inside:

With Epensea’s size and strength, he could probably be an effective edge rusher at this level without honing his hand skills. In the NFL, he’ll very much need every edge he can find, and scouts will be pleased to see the work ethic to mastering his craft is already there and in full effect.

Play Diagnosis

As an edge rusher you must be able to process a lot of information quite quickly. Is it a run or a pass play? Is the ball coming my direction?  Will the quarterback get the ball away before I get there? If so is it more prudent to stop rushing and try and swat the ball instead? Is there misdirection? Where is the lineman trying to take me? Being able to mentally dissect all this in the three or four seconds between snap and the ball being gone is crucial to their success.

AJ Epenesa is a very smart football player. His biggest strength is diagnosing the play, and immediately getting the leverage against a blocker. He isn’t often fooled by misdirection, and can show a level of patience not normally attributed to the college game. This play here against Nebraska, where Epenesa remains calm and corrals the ball carrier, typifies his football smarts:

I couldn’t find any evidence on game tape to discern if Epenesa has the ability to halt his rush and attempt to swat the ball out of the air, like say JJ Watt does in the NFL. That’s not to say he can’t, it’s just that more often than not when he has a route to the quarterback he makes it. With those long arms it would certainly be an attribute he could add to his game. I guess we’ll just have to watch this space on that one.


The biggest question I have on Epenesa is, if he is so talented, why did Iowa use him so sparingly? Part of playing defensive end on a four man front is bringing the heat play after play. As mentioned when looking at his burst off the snap I thought he was a little inconsistent with speed, but that’s not the case with effort. Epenesa plays relentless football on every snap, and that could be a testament to the Iowa coaching staff who utilised their depth chart and possibly got the most out of him. Watch him battle to the ball despite being locked out of a play:

One thing I did notice is that if a running play is going away from Epenesa he can often slow down into an almost nonchalant jog. This, potentially, could be his way of conserving energy in the knowledge that he’ll never catch up to the play from the back end – he is no weakside linebacker after all. But in football anything can happen and plays can bounce back to the other side of the field in a flash. Will NFL scouts want to see a little more effort from him in this situation? Maybe I’m just being over zealous after watching hours of tape. It will though be interesting to compare his motor from 2018 to this season with the anticipated increase in workload.


It is quite easy to put edge rushers into one of two categories; speed or power. The best pass rushers of course possess both qualities, as does Epenesa. But there is a third attribute that can have people uttering the phrase ‘elite’, and that is dip. Dip, or bend if you like, is a skill or athletic trait that allows a pass rusher to keep his body low to the floor as he attacks the edge.

In the NFL right now Vonn Miller is probably the most extreme example. Very quick off the snap, Miller will charge at the outside shoulder of the tackle. When he reaches the point of contact he is so low to the ground it is very difficult for the blocker to get his hands on him. Sometimes Miller will use his hands as a swim move to aide his penetration to the backfield, but ultimately it’s about keeping your body as low as possible. Here one of Miller’s rushes is excellently broken down by Voch Lombardi:

But that’s not all. Once you have got to the corner, you have to open your hips and cut inside at a sharp angle to get to the quarterback. It’s no good keeping low and getting underneath the tackle if you have the turning circle of a HGV truck. You need to be able to flatten your trajectory and come inside sharply. As you saw in the clip above, Miller has that to his game too. It’s what makes him one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL.

So does Epenesa possess this ability to ‘dip and rip’? In fairness, anybody who stands a six and a half feet tall is going to struggle to keep as low as Vonn Miller. Epenesa understands leverage and doesn’t play high like many tall defensive ends. But asking him to go underneath the arms of a blocker on a frequent basis? That’s like asking Tom Brady to break the pocket and scamper for a thirty yard gain – it’s just not part of his game…


Now granted, that was the only example I could find of him gliding under the tackle. But it shows at the very least he knows it’s a tool to be used when possible. His arc once beyond the lineman needs some work, and raises some suggestions about lateral agility. But again – this is a guy that weighs 280lbs. What he loses in short area agility he more than makes up for in power and strength. Would it be phenomenal if Epenesa possessed this trait? Absolutely – it would be remarkable. Does this lack of bend preclude him from being a first round draft pick and a pro bowler in the NFL? Absolutely not.

Far Too Early Prediction

The season is still in it’s infancy. Iowa, at the time of writing, have played one game. And Epenesa was double teamed, sometimes triple teamed by Miami (Ohio) throughout the contest. So take his one tackle and one pass defended with a pinch of salt – AJ Epenesa is the real deal. His ideal length, strength and speed coupled with his high football IQ, sound fundamentals and excellent hand usage are hard to find. There is a premium on pass rushers in the NFL and scouts will be watching his final season at Iowa very carefully. He’ll end up as one of my top five edge rushers and a first round prospect heading into the 2020 draft.

How high could he go? The potential and the opportunity is there for Epenesa to showcase his talents on this Hawkeyes defense. Whether he can make it all the way to the #1 overall pick is a hard question to answer – I imagine he will be targeted predominantly by teams with 4-3 defenses so he can play with his hand in the dirt. Projecting which 4-3 team will have the highest pick and a need at that position is impossible at this juncture. An intriguing fit for me would be the Detroit Lions, a team that loves to build from the trenches. I can see Matt Patricia salivating at the thought of having Epenesa & Trey Flowers getting after it from both sides. Wherever he ends up you can expect Epenesa to be hounding quarterbacks for the next decade plus.

Simon Carroll


previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.