Scouting Combine Edge Rushers: Unstoppable Epenesa

Bill Huber

In all, 34 edge defenders will be at the Scouting Combine. Some will work out with the defensive ends and some will work out with the linebackers. Part 1 of our four-part series is highlighted by Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa and fellow Big Ten standouts Zach Baun and Carter Coughlin, plus Utah star Bradlee Anae. (Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk.)

DE Bradlee Anae, Utah (6-3, 265): Anee became the ninth consensus All-American in program history as a senior. He also won the Morris Trophy, which goes to the Pac-12’s top defensive linemen as voted on by the conference’s offensive linemen, and was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end. He ranked eighth in the nation with 13 sacks and added 14 tackles for losses.

The team’s leader in sacks the past three seasons, he set a school record with 30 career sacks, ranks fourth with 41.5 tackles for losses and eighth with six forced fumbles. After setting the sacks record, he told the Athletic: “I’m just grateful, you know? I was able to stay healthy to accumulate sacks and whatnot. It’s beyond me. I can’t imagine breaking the record, from guys who came before me, from Hunter Dimick to Nate Orchard. It was just a special season. I’m eating for the guys.” He added three more sacks in the Senior Bowl. “He’s got a great gift, a great ability to rush the edge,” said Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia, who was the North team’s coach at the Senior Bowl. He’s the mayor of “Sack Lake City.” As he told KSL.com: “Honestly, any player should believe that, or try to become the best, you know. And now that everyone's — the recognition is there — it doesn't change anything for me, doesn't change how I go about preparation and things like that. But it's sure good to have. It's like a manifestation of what you've been working for over almost your whole life.”

His father, Brad, was a two-time All-American with BYU and was drafted by the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. One of his sisters, Adora, was a three-time all-conference volleyball player for Utah. Another sister played volleyball at Portland State. Another sister, Bradina, is a world-record-holding powerlifter and throws the shot put at BYU. An uncle, Robert Anae, is the offensive coordinator at Virginia. “He doesn’t understand volleyball, and I don’t really understand football, but our passion for the sports is what we share,” Adora told Deseret.com. “We share our experiences at practice and at games. … We just share each other’s experiences. And it’s just the best to be here at the U. together.”

LB Zack Baun, Wisconsin* (6-3, 240): Baun had a breakout final season with 12.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles to be named one of six finalists for the Butkus Award. An outside linebacker in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme, he could line up on the edge in the NFL. Or, he could become an off-the-ball linebacker. Former Badgers star Joe Schobert made a similar transition in the NFL and became a stalwart linebacker for the Browns.

At Brown Deer (Wis.) High School, Baun was a prolific quarterback who passed for 3,061 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushed for 3,923 yards and 67 touchdowns in 22 career games. Also in high school, he started on the school’s state champion basketball team and won state titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Still, his recruiting letter from the Badgers came addressed to Zack Brown. As he emerged as star, he got a new nickname: Sack Baun. It almost didn’t happen, though. Brown Deer’s coach had to put on a full-court press to get the basketball-loving Baun to try football. “We’re fast. We run spread. I think you could help us, and I think we could help you,” coach Rob Green said. “He said ‘maybe.’ For the first time, he didn’t tell me no.” Baun’s quarterback experience helped him play defense. “With the spread offenses nowadays everyone’s running the zone read — it’s exactly what I ran in high school. I was a running quarterback, I was rarely handing the ball off in those zone reads. Players are so undisciplined in high school, I was keeping it every time. It taught me as an edge defender to be patient and hold your water.’’

LB K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU* (6-4, 250): Chaisson departed after his redshirt sophomore season. After missing almost all of the 2018 season with a torn ACL, Chaisson amassed 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for losses – both team-leading figures – to earn first-team all-SEC for the national champions. Two of those sacks came against Oklahoma in the playoff semifinals.

Despite the lack of experience, he was voted a permanent team captain and was given the prestigious No. 18 jersey. “It’s special. The number 18 is a very special number but at the same time, it’s just me,” Chaisson told Saturday Down South. “I didn’t really do anything to become No. 18, I didn’t do any special things to get this number, I was just being myself. I’m glad that it was recognized but at the same time, whether I have the number or not, I gotta do what needs to be done on and off the field. That’s just how I was raised.” He fancies himself as more than a pass rusher – never mind his Twitter handle. At North Shore High School, he led the state of Texas with 15.5 sacks as a senior. His NFL path is amazing. Chaisson stopped playing football following his freshman year at North Shore so he could focus on basketball. He attended an LSU football camp the summer before his junior year to support a friend. He was coaxed onto the field and, a few hours later, had been awarded a scholarship offer. Never mind that he hadn’t played a varsity snap. “I’m different,” Chaisson told the Advocate. “I’m not like any other player. There’s a lot of things I do that others don’t.”

LB Nick Coe, Auburn* (6-5, 291): Coe recorded nine sacks and 21 tackles for losses during his three seasons. He had a breakout sophomore campaign with seven sacks, 13.5 TFLs and one forced fumble. As a junior, he had no sacks and three TFLs.

In high school, Coe moved in with the family of a fellow wrestler. “I got comfortable there, and I was like, ‘I might as well just stay here,’” Coe told the Montgomery Advertiser. “It came from a school standpoint, from him taking me home a lot. I enjoyed being there and everything, and after a while, I realized I was basically moving out and it was like, ‘Wow, I’m basically moving to the house’ and everything. It was all right by them. I felt comfortable. I felt like I was at home.”

Coe is a big man who will work out with the linebackers at the Combine. Scouts love wrestlers. Coe won two state heavyweight championships at Asheboro (N.C.) High School and three National High School Coaches Association national titles. “He’s a different kind of guy … because he’s long, he’s strong, but then you see the fact that he was an accomplished wrestler,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “He understands leverage. He understands use of hands, he understands body leverage. I mean, that’s wrestling. And when you apply that to defensive line, then it allows him sometimes to even play bigger than he is.” In 2019, he moved to outside linebacker. “Nick's a freak, man,” safety Jeremiah Dinson told AL.com. “He can do it all, to be honest with you. He can do it all.”

DE Kendall Coleman, Syracuse (6-3, 253): A four-year starter, Coleman finished his career with 15.5 sacks, 26.5 tackles for losses. As a senior, he was the team MVP and a team captain with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for losses.

After suffering a torn labrum late in the 2017 season, Coleman considered quitting. “I’m not going to make you stay but I want you think about this,” his mom recalled in a story for the Daily Orange. “Life is hard. We can’t give you anything. You have to earn everything. And yes, you have had unfortunate injuries, but you know, that’s some of the trials and tribulations. So we want you to think about that because this was your dream.” Coleman enjoys writing poetry. “Inspiration can strike anywhere,” he told the school. “One time I got off the bus near Crouse College, as the sun was setting. The sky was beautiful, with lots of purples, pinks and blues. I had to take a picture, so I could write about what I saw.”

LB Carter Coughlin, Minnesota (6-4, 245): Coughlin is one of the most productive defenders in Gophers history. He ranks third in school history with 22.5 sacks and fourth with 40 tackles for losses. He added seven forced fumbles. He was second-team all-Big Ten each of his final two seasons, with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs as a senior and 9.5 sacks and 15 TFLs as a junior.

Coughlin comes from a long line of Gophers, including his father (former football player), mother (former tennis player) and grandfather (former football and baseball player and interim athletics director). “My dad is tough as nails. I would say I inherited that from him, but I would say my mom is even tougher,” he told the Star Tribune. “…They are crazy competitive. That’s why my house of five kids was super fun growing up, because everyone is crazy competitive. Take that with me on the football field and always push myself. That’s why I’m here.” Before his final season, he participated in Von Miller’s pass-rushers summit. “It was unbelievable,” Coughlin told the Athletic. “Honestly, you can’t get that kind of coaching anywhere else. It’s the best of the best. I learned stuff that I’ve never heard before, or that I’d never even thought about before. But that’s the level that pass rushers in the NFL are at. Guys like Von Miller have been in the league for such a long time. They process everything differently. So it was, it was really special.”

LB Michael Divinity, LSU (6-2, 241): Divinity played in five games as a senior, posting three sacks and four tackles for losses. He was suspended for the first two games of the season and then another six games for violating the school’s drug policy. The six-game suspension came from failing a fourth drug test. His only true season came as a junior, when he recorded four sacks and 9.5 tackles for losses among his 54 stops. That season represented about half of his career totals.

Divinity returned for the national championship game. “I just stayed positive. A lot of my teammates stayed positive, and they were there. Always texted me, made sure I was straight. Family members were always there. Came and checked on me. I also have a 1-year old daughter. I just can’t sit and mourn all day, because my daughter she needs to be fed. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to play again,” he said to Fox 8. "It was a hard time,” he told the Associated Press. “I was going through a lot, dealing with a lot. I had to take a step away back from football, focus more on just me myself personally, fixing myself as a young man, and focus on graduating, which I did. It's just finding myself again, finding the ability to be the Michael I was before all the things that was going on.” In 2016, the family lost just about everything in a foreclosure raid. “It was very emotional for him,” Michael Sr. told the Advocate. “Everything just started to get good, and now that happens.”

DE A.J. Epenesa, Iowa* (6-6, 280): Epenesa was a dominant force. As a sophomore, he had 16.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. In 2019, he had 11.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses and four more forced fumbles. In 2019, he was one of five finalists for the Polynesian Player of the Year, a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award and a first-team All-American. He closed his career with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble vs. USC in the Holiday Bowl.

He was a three-sport star at Edwardsville (Ill.) High School, with All-American honors in football and track and field (Illinois state record in the discus) and a 1,000-point scorer in basketball. In the discus, he was the state champion as a junior but struggling in the state meet as a senior. Before his last throw, his brother asked if he was winning. Epenesa’s answer? “Not yet.” As high school football coach Matt Martin told the Daily Iowan: “Most people would feel the pressure. He’s the defending champ sitting in third place, and things aren’t going well. [Yet] he was so confident in himself.” His father, Eppy, grew up in America Samoa and came to the States to play football at Iowa Wesleyan. Two years later, he was at Iowa. "There were a lot of coaches that came to visit," Epenesa told Bleacher Report. "They would say things like, 'I wish you weren't committed for football, because we'd want to take you for basketball.'" His dad’s football knowledge and work ethic rubbed off on him from an early age. “I was a lot bigger and faster and more athletic than everybody. But I also knew the moves, because of my dad,” Epenesa told Hawk Central. “I was swim-moving, spinning. I was dipping and ripping. Clubbing. I was doing all that in my first year of football. It was unfair.” For the Epenesas, football is family – and everyone is family. Not only did Eppy train his son but he’s helped train scores of kids in Edwardsville. “I started doing this because if my kids had to train by themselves, how not fun is that?” Eppy told the Gazette. “Friends help each other stay fit. We have about 50 kids. By the time they get to the coaches, these guys are ready. They’re running everywhere, they’re flying everywhere.” Due to a broken leg, he played only five games as a high school freshman. Still, he received a recruiting letter from Florida State. “I was wondering, what in the world is this?” Epenesa told AllHawkeyes.com. “I had only played in five games. I had never been to a camp or anything. And I was just kind of interested. I was like, what is this? I always wanted to play college football, and I always to play in the NFL. Every kid that plays football does want that. But I never really put much thought into it until that first letter.”

Get to Know the Scouting Combine Prospects

Introducing the 34 Edge Rushers

Part 1: Unstoppable Epenesa, Baun, Anae

Part 2: Gross-Matos' incredible story

Part 3: Okwara and a lot of questions

Part 4: Thrill of the Chase (Young)

Introducing the 25 Defensive Linemen

Part 1: Auburn duo and dynamic twins

Part 2: Kinlaw and SEC stars

Part 3: Baylor's defensive lynchpin

Introducing the 20 Tight Ends

Part 1: Kmet, Moss and the Bryants

Part 2: Small-school stars Trautman and Taumoepeau, and five SEC standouts

Introducing the 25 Offensive Tackles

Part 1: Becton, D-III stud Bartch and Charles

Part 2: Jones and plenty of NFL DNA

Part 3: The Big Three of Thomas, Wills and Wirfs

Introducing the 17 Guards

Part 1: Bredeson, Hunt, Jackson and Lewis

Part 2: Stenberg, Simpson and Throckmorton

Introducing the 10 Centers

Big Ten’s Biadasz, Ruiz Lead Way

Introducing the 55 Receivers

Part 1: Aiyuk, Bowden did it all

Part 2: Duvernay, Edwards and Gandy-Golden

Part 3: LSU's Jefferson among TD machines

Part 4: Lamb, Jeudy top receiver class

Part 5: Mims leads Texas trio

Part 6: Ruggs, Shenault produce big plays

Introducing the 30 Running Backs

Part 1: Cam Akers, Eno Benjamin and J.K. Dobbins

Part 2: Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Zack Moss

Part 3: D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor

Introducing the 17 Quarterbacks

Part 1: Burrow, Eason, Fromm

Part 2: Gordon, Herbert, Hurts, Love

Part 3: Tagovailoa and two Wisconsin natives

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