On Sunday, Edwardsville football coach Matt Martin will watch former Tigers star Vincent Valentine play in the Super Bowl as a rookie with the New England Patriots.
Does Martin have another future NFL player in Tigers All-American defensive end and five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa, who signed with the Iowa Hawkeyes on Wednesday?
“I think if he keeps working at it, the sky’s the limit for him,” Martin said of Epenesa, one of the nation’s consensus top-30 recruits coming off appearances at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and winning defensive MVP honors at the Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii. “I could see him, if he still wants to throw (the discus), he could do special things in track and field. Who knows?”
Epenesa, 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, was one of four Division I signings for Edwardsville on Wednesday. The others were linemen Tate Rujawitz and Lucas Davis, who both signed with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and University of Memphis kicker-punter recruit Riley Patterson.
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Edwardsville quarterback Brenden Dickmann signed with Division II McKendree University.
Epenesa is the first five-star recruit landed by the Hawkeyes since offensive lineman Dan Doering in 2005. He’s been an All-American in football and track and field and all-state in three sports, including basketball.
While it obviously helped that Epenesa’s father once played for Iowa — and Eppy Epenesa was wearing his old Iowa Hawkeyes letterman’s jacket Wednesday at his son’s press conference — signing with Iowa wasn’t always a given.
“For a while I wanted to go to Notre Dame, and I wanted to be an Oklahoma Sooner,” Epenesa said. “Those were my other top two choices, so for a while I wanted to go (there), and I wasn’t really thinking much of Iowa at the time.”
That feeling quickly changed, and Epenesa committed to Iowa a year ago.
“When it came down to it, though,” he said, “I looked back at where I came from, and I just remembered that I would regret going anywhere but Iowa because it’s my dream school.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Epenesa’s family legacy didn’t hurt the recruiting process.
“I remember coming out of the basketball game during the spring of his sophomore year. He’s an impressive young man, and he happened to walk with (wife) Mary and I back here to the arena,” Ferentz said. “Mary met him, visited with him. She didn’t know who he was, and on the car ride home I told her he was a sophomore in high school and she couldn’t believe it.
“She thought he was in college.”
That’s why Epenesa’s mother, Stephanie, used to carry a copy of his birth certificate around with her. Just in case.
“He’s a poised young man ... he is a good football player,” Ferentz said. “My sister could tell you that. That’s one that my sister could identify, pretty good athlete, too. But a poised guy, very humble. He’s been raised to me the right way.”
Epenesa collected 134 tackles and 13 sacks as a four-year starter despite facing double-teams the last two seasons.
“He’s a no-brainer, and some players are really talented,” Ferentz said. “The thing I’m impressed more with is the way he thinks and the way he’s made up mentally. He approaches things the right way.
“He’s hungry. He’s team oriented. It’s all about his team and what’s going on at his high school. He’s played in the Army all-star game, the Polynesian Bowl, done a lot of things outside that brings recognition which a lot of guys would die for, certainly. But it doesn’t affect him.”