ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – A.J. Epenesa’s connection with Iowa outweighs that at any other of the who’s who of college football program’s pursuing him. One of the top players in the Class of 2017 grew up a Hawkeye.
Epenesa’s father, Epenesa Epenesa, played defensive tackle at the Big Ten school for legendary coach Hayden Fry in the late-1990s. A walk-on from Samoa via Iowa Wesleyan, dad earned a scholarship with the Hawkeyes and wears a Tigerhawk tattoo on his right shoulder.
While in Iowa City, the older Epenesa played with LeVar Woods, now the Hawkeye assistant leading the school’s recruitment of his son. Woods was one of the first coaches to contact A.J. on Tuesday when the NCAA allowed high school juniors to be reached directly.
Iowa is positioned well with one of the country’s elite prospects. The 247 network ranks A.J. as the No. 2 player overall in the ’17 Class. Scout rates him No. 17 and he checks in at No. 23 for Rivals.
When a prospect is regarded that highly, he holds the cards in recruiting. Epenesa already can choose between offers from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida State, Ohio State and USC, to name a few. He often chooses the place where he fits best but he can couple that with where he feels he can win a lot of games.
A.J. Epenesa wants to play for a winner.
"I want to be in a program that can win some games," he said. "I don’t want to go somewhere where they’re not doing very well."
The Hawkeyes lost four of their final five games a year ago, including an embarrassing setback to Tennessee in the Taxslayer Bowl, to finish 7-6. Season ticket sales dropped significantly.
Iowa not only needed a strong ’15 to re-engage the fan base but to prove to recruits that it’s not a program in decline. It kicked off the campaign with an impressive 31-14 win against Illinois State on Saturday, the first step in gaining the confidence of those people that matter most.
For Epenesa, everything else seems to be in place in Iowa City.
"We’re coached hard here at Edwardsville but whenever I visited Iowa I really liked it because the coaches are laid back but they’re not going to let you do whatever you want," he said.
A.J.’s bond with Woods will help the Hawkeyes stay in the game with the blue bloods.
"He’s a close family friend. He played football with my dad. He’s one of the few coaches that actually did. It’s real close. He knew me as a little kid. He knew my sister (Purdue Volleyball player Sam Epenesa) as a little kid when my dad was at Iowa," A.J. said.
"He’s a very nice man and I love him. He’s kind of like family. I just enjoy everything and he knows how to say things to not pressure you to do things. He won’t say, commit now. He’ll say if it’s really what you want, or if this is your choice, then do what your heart says and that’s what I like about Coach Woods."
As mentioned, Iowa faces stiff competition for A.J. That’s evidenced by Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh calling him at midnight on Sept. 1, leading a long line of suiters pushing for position.
"I woke up with quite a few notifications from different colleges. It’s fun but it gets a little stressful. It’s hard because you can’t complain about it to people because then you’re complaining because you’re getting college attention," A.J. said.
"It puts me in that position but I don’t complain because it’s a blessing. Some people don’t get that, a lot of people don’t get that. So, it’s a rare chance. I try to enjoy it as much as I can and whenever it gets too stressful I’m just going to turn my phone off and avoid it."
Woods’ message was the first A.J. received when he woke up on Sept. 1, he said.
"It was good to see one from him," A.J. said.
Epenesa Epenesa has shared with A.J. all the things he loves about Iowa but wants his son to make the decision that’s best for him. The father has approached the process the same way he did with his daughter, Sam, who didn’t receive much attention from the previous Hawkeye coaching staff before ending up in West Lafayette.
"My dad would have loved for her to go to Iowa but now he’s a diehard Purdue Volleyball fan," A.J. said. "And I know my dad will support me in everything I do. I love him and he’s going to support me in whatever choice I make."
A.J. has a lot on his plate these days with a commitment to his team, academics and supporting his sister at her matches. Recruiting fits in somewhere behind those priorities.
"I think about it a little bit but I try to keep it off my mind because I’ve got to think about school, think about football. Whenever football season is over then that’s when I’ll start thinking about it more often because that’s probably when more attention is going to come in the offseason because the colleges will be in their offseason," he said.
While the Iowa coaches are busy coaching their current players, the fans keep A.J. thinking about the Hawkeyes by reaching out on social media. He appreciates the attention.
"Whenever a Hawkeye fan or a fan from another college Tweets at me, I think it’s really cool. I like that they take time out of their day to Tweet at me. It makes me happy to see stuff like that," he said.
A.J. said that Iowa fans lead the way in social media interaction.
"Iowa is the craziest. They definitely message me the most. I don’t mind. I like Iowa. They’re coming out and showing their love for me. I appreciate it," he said.