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Top Edge Rushers in NFL Draft: A.J. Epenesa

Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, after a lousy Scouting Combine, ranks No. 4 among this year’s edge-rushing prospects.

Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, after a lousy Scouting Combine, ranks No. 4 among this year’s edge-rushing prospects.

Eppy Epenesa grew up in America Samoa and came to the United States to play football at Iowa Wesleyan. Two years later, he was at Iowa.

A.J. Epenesa followed his father to Iowa. With his father providing coaching and guidance over the years, the next step will be the NFL as a potential first-round pick.

“I was pretty lucky being able to have a mentor like him in the house all the time, someone who knows the game of football as well as he does,” Epenesa said at the Scouting Combine. “Anyone who has a football dad who played the same position as them are lucky to have coaching like that. It made it a little bit easier to start off.”

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. As a high school freshman, he received his first recruiting letter, from Florida State, even though he missed half the season with a broken leg. There never was a doubt about where Epenesa would go to college as he became the rare five-star recruit to play for Kirk Ferentz’s program.

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’s esteemed left tackle, Austin Jackson, in the Holiday Bowl.

Epenesa entered the scouting season considered a top-10 draft pick. Then came an awful 40-yard time of 5.04 seconds. It was a nightmare for Epenesa.

“You’ve got all the best guys in college football here at this position,” Epenesa said before the primetime workout, “and we’re all gathered in one place, doing the same events on the same day, same jump pad or same lane running, so there’s no excuses, no one can say anything. It’s all about how you perform in that moment and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

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At 6-foot-5 1/8 and 275 pounds with 34 1/2-inch arms, speed off the edge was never Epenesa’s forte, anyway. Rather, it was size, length, strength and an array of moves learned from father. Not that he’s a finished product, but he is incredibly polished compared to his peers. “I think teams should take me because I bring a lot of passion and a lot of energy to the game. I feel like I can be a momentum-changer no matter what time of the game it is. Whether it’s trying to get a strip-sack and get the ball back to the offense or helping the defense score itself, I feel like I bring a certain kind of energy that brings confidence that the offense or defense is going to pull through.” Only Ohio State’s Chase Young forced more fumbles. Plus, he missed only three tackles (6 percent).

What we don’t like

There’s no spinning the 40 time. The more ways you can get to the quarterback, the better. Epenesa’s arsenal is limited by the lack of explosion. He has almost no experience playing in reverse. Epenesa’s relative polish is a good thing – he’s a ready-made pass rusher – but there also might be a limited upside.

Bill Huber’s Edge Rusher Profiles

No. 1: Ohio State’s Chase Young

No. 2: LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson

No. 3: Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos

No. 4: Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa

No. 5: Michigan’s Joe Uche

Nos 6-20: Best of the Rest