Bohnenkamp: The Microscope On Epenesa Misses The Bigger Picture
Kirk Ferentz is aware.
The Iowa football coach knows that there may be some lingering doubts about defensive end A.J. Epenesa heading into this weekend’s NFL Draft.
Epenesa is projected as a first-round pick, and with good reason. Still, there are those who wonder if he might not slip into the second round, that his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine that lit those doubts caused his stock to fall.
Ferentz gets it. He coached in the NFL, and along with his long time of coaching at the college level know that scouts can sometimes take the microscope to the extreme, that they almost talk themselves out of quality players because of a tiny flaw or one bad 40-yard dash time or whatever.
Ferentz hinted at it early in last week’s video conference with the media, when he made a quick analysis of the Hawkeyes and the draft.
“My encouragement to anyone who is interested in A.J. — just look at the film, and don’t worry about anything you didn’t like or did like at the Combine,” Ferentz said.
Later in the conference, I asked him what he would tell NFL teams about Epenesa.
“To me, what’s most important is what you see on film,” Ferentz said. “And what A.J. does on film, you can’t teach. He has some really unique skills and abilities. All you have to do is look at his production. And look at him against guys who are projected against guys who are projected as first-rounders, or second-rounders. He’s just a really productive player.”
Ferentz mentioned getting ready for the 2019 Outback Bowl, when the Hawkeyes were preparing to face Mississippi State defensive end Jeffery Simmons, who would go on to be a first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in last year’s draft.
Simmons, Ferentz said, was one of those players that you better always account for when he’s on the field. The same, he said, could be said for Epenesa.
“It’s as simple as this for me — when you get ready for a team in preparation, there are certain players you better be fully aware of what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what’s going to happen when the ball is snapped,” Ferentz said. “I would imagine when you’re playing us, when you look at Epenesa, you say the same thing — we better have a plan for this guy over here, or he’s going to disrupt the game a little bit. So, that to me is how you judge players like that.”
Epenesa had 11.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last season. Eight of those sacks, and 11 of those tackles for loss, came in Iowa’s last five games.
That’s because so many teams were throwing a chemistry of blocking schemes at Epenesa early in the season. It was easy to do, because there were some unknowns on Iowa’s defensive front, and when the one “known” is a player who can dominate a game, your blocking game plan is going to be directed toward him.
A lot of those same blocking schemes came at Epenesa late in the season, but by then that defensive front had grown into a stronger unit. Epenesa also had started to figure out ways to beat those schemes, and he had gotten used to the extended playing time that he wasn’t getting in his first two seasons.
By the time those final games arrived, Epenesa had become an even more dominant player, and a lot of good offensive fronts paid for that.
Forget about Epenesa’s 40-yard dash time of 5.04 seconds at the Combine. The Hawkeyes don’t even time the 40 until it gets to Pro Day, so it's not something they worry about, Ferentz said. Iowa’s Pro Day was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Epenesa missed the chance to maybe put up a better number.
So go back to the film, Ferentz said. Look at the players on the offensive side of the ball that he beat this year — heck, look at past years, when Epenesa was still learning, and look at how NFL scouts view them.
And also, Ferentz said, remember this — Epenesa had just three years of college football. He was playing as a true freshman — he had 4 ½ sacks and 5 ½ tackles for loss in that season — then followed that with 10 ½ sacks and 16 ½ tackles for loss as a sophomore.
“He’s got a lot of development still in front of him,” Ferentz said. “He’s got a great attitude, comes from a great family. So there’s a lot of value and upside right there.”
The message from Ferentz is simple — if you’re looking through the microscope at Epenesa, you’re not seeing the bigger picture.
And that likely is going to be a mistake.