The Iowa Hawkeyes may not be having an extremely successful season on the field, but the 2017 recruiting trail has been a different story for Kirk Ferentz and his staff.
Iowa’s 2017 class is currently ranked No. 25 nationally and No. 6 in the Big Ten. It’s a class that features multiple four-star recruits, something that can’t be said about Iowa’s most recent classes, and of course, the crown jewel for the Hawkeyes is actually a five-star recruit — but more on him in a minute.
To put into perspective how good Iowa’s 2017 class really is, just consider the recent history of Hawkeye recruiting.
Iowa’s 2016 class was a revolutionary one. It was the first class that truly saw the benefits of what many fans called “New Kirk”, which was simply a sensationalist nickname for long-time head coach Kirk Ferentz. For the past two or so seasons, Ferentz has a developed a “riverboat gambler” mentality on the football field. He’s been taking more chances and opening things up a bit, which was revolutionary for a coach who was known for his old-school, family-friendly ways.
Iowa’s 2015 season was a direct result.
The Hawkeyes had one of the best teams in the country and made it to the Rose Bowl. Sure, Iowa lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship and was blown out by Stanford in Pasadena, but all things considered it was a great year for the Hawkeyes. A 2016 recruiting class that got the “New Kirk” treatment (a more aggressive offering strategy, a wider recruiting net that didn’t just focus on unknown recruits from the middle-of-nowhere Iowa) also thrived. The Hawkeyes’ 2016 recruiting class was ranked No. 49 nationally, and it featured players like sought-after defensive end Cedrick Lattimore, tight end Noah Fant (the No. 1 recruit from Nebraska) and running back Toks Akinribade, a legitimate star running back recruit in the Midwest.
Sure, No. 49 may not seem great, but consider that 2015’s class was ranked No. 60 nationally, 2014’s was No. 59 and 2013’s class was ranked No. 58.
It was a huge step in the right direction for the Hawkeyes, but 2017’s class (so far) is the one that could lead to a full-on recruiting turnaround in Iowa City.
Riding the momentum of last season plus a newfound confidence on the trail, Iowa has landed players such as four-star cornerback Djimon Colbert, four-star tackle Tristan Wirfs and three-star wideout Ivory Kelly-Martin . None shine brighter than the five-star, though, so it’s time we finally start talking about A.J. Epenesa.
Epenesa is a five-star strong-side defensive end from Edwardsville, Ill. (Edwardsville). According to the rankings, he’s the No. 1 SDE in the 2017 class as well as the undisputed No. 1 player from the state of Illinois.
The 247Sports composite ranks Epenesa as the No. 23 player nationally, but it’s well worth noting that the 247Sports-only rankings are much, much higher on him. 247Sports ranks Epenesa as the No. 6 overall 2017 recruit in America, a ranking that may not seem like a huge deal to, let’s say, an Alabama fan, but it means the world to Hawkeye nation.
Sure, Epenesa’s father, Eppy Epenesa, is a former Hawkeye player who definitely roots for Iowa football, but he in no way pushed his son to follow in his footsteps in Iowa City. That means that Ferentz and his staff landed the five-star on their own abilities pitching Iowa football, and that’s a big deal.
To say that without a look at Epenesa’s offer list would be a shame, because Iowa did land the five-star over just about every major college football program in the nation. Alabama, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Oregon, Tennessee, UCLA, USC and Wisconsin were among the 24 other programs that offered hm.
According to MaxPreps, the 2016 season saw Epenesa notch 36 tackles (22 solo), two sacks and a forced fumble. In 2015 he’s notched 48 tackles (35 solo), 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three fumble recoveries.
Those numbers don’t come anywhere near to doing justice to Epenesa’s abilities, though.
He’s 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, which is great size for a defensive edge player entering his freshman season of college. He’s a physically imposing defender who can dominate at the point of attack due to his size, speed and skill-set. He looks like a man among boys at the high school level, and he’ll be just as imposing a defensive end in the Big Ten.
Epenesa uses his hands well to disengage with blocks. He’s obviously big enough to bull-rush an offensive lineman, but he has the skill-set of a pure pass-rusher. He can fight inside with a strong rip move, but also has the speed to turn the corner, dip his shoulders and beat an offensive tackle on the edges.
Simply put, Epenesa is an offensive coordinator’s nightmare as a defensive end. He’s big, strong and physical enough to be effective against the run, but he can pin his ears back and intimidate a quarterback as a rusher in passing situations. And when he gets to the ball carrier or quarterback, he doesn’t hold back. Epenesa will deliver a few highlight-reel hits as a member of the Hawkeyes.
He already looks to be Big Ten ready, so look for Epenesa to make an immediate impact once he joins up with Iowa at the college level.
The hype is real and he could end up being a program-changer. Top recruits like him don’t come around often in Iowa City, though perhaps he can be a big part in changing that narrative for the Hawkeyes.