Whether they chose to double-team him or run the other way, opposing teams always knew when Edwardsville senior All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa was on the field.
“I know there were a lot of wild moments, especially when it was third and long, and he could pin his ears back and focus on the pass rush,” Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said of Epenesa, the Iowa Hawkeyes recruit voted by area coaches as the Belleville News-Democrat’s Large-School Football Defensive Player of the Year. “He had a pretty good chance of getting there.”
He certainly did.
Despite constant blocking attention and almost always dealing with double-teams, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound senior piled up five sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures along with 57 tackles. He set a single-season school record with eight blocked kicks (three punts, five field goals or extra points), and his 15 career sacks also are a school record.
Did we mention that Epenesa also was the Tigers’ long snapper and helped them to a 10-2 record and spot in the Class 8A quarterfinals?
“I think it’s a big honor, and I appreciate it,” Epenesa said of winning BND Defensive Player of the Year. “It was a difficult year for me with wanting to make more plays. That was a little more difficult with teams running the other way. I worked pretty hard to make the plays I had, and I tried to keep teams from running my way.
“I also tried to play the game hard and the way it should be played.”
Epenesa didn’t just do that. He spent so much time in the other team’s backfields, he could have been listed as one of their running backs.
Opposing quarterbacks lived in fear of seeing the big man sprinting around the corner at full speed, wondering how far they might be thrown for a loss or how hard they might be hit.
Among the best in the country
Rivals.com has Epenesa rated as the No. 1 senior defensive end recruit in the nation, the No. 35 recruit overall and the No. 1 recruit in Illinois.
Scout.com has Epenesa rated as the No. 21 senior recruit in the nation at any position and the No. 2 defensive end. ESPN.com has Epenesa No. 6 on the ESPN 300 recruits list and the top recruit in Illinois.
Martin has coached two NFL players in Vincent Valentine, of the New England Patriots, and Rodney Coe, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Martin marvels at Epenesa’s multisport talent and versatility and believes he has a solid shot at the NFL.
“I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody that’s as good as he is in three sports,” Martin said.
Epenesa wasn’t content just to make plays in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage, either.
“The biggest improvement for me was being able to react quicker to what was given to me on screen passes,” Epenesa said. “I was making plays for a loss and making plays to prevent touchdowns on screen passes to a wide receiver.
“It was being able to play the whole field, not just the middle or my side. It was making plays on every side of the field and not being content with only the plays that came your way.”
Center of attention
Martin knows Epenesa as well as anyone outside of his family. He coached him for four years on the varsity in both football and track and field, where Epenesa is an All-American and state champ in the discus throw.
“In my coaching career, I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a kid any more than him,” Martin said.
One of the most common occurrences Martin encountered was having opponents, fans, children and adults seeking Epenesa out for photos, autographs or selfies on their cell phones.
He commands that kind of attention nearly everywhere he goes.
“When we’re in a crowd, I’m afraid to leave him alone,” Martin said. “Last year at the state track meet people just stopped him everywhere and wanted to talk to him. You’ve got grown men always stopping him and wanting to talk, even in the middle of the competition.
“Part of that is his success and people want to meet him, but he’s very approachable.”
Seeing the raw power of what Epenesa gets done in football, basketball and track might scare some people, but in reality the big man almost always has time for others — especially for kids.
The son of former Iowa football player Eppy Epenesa and former Iowa Wesleyan volleyball player Stephanie Epenesa, A.J. Epenesa is excited to begin his college career and will sign with the Hawkeyes in February.
“I’m super excited to go to Iowa; it will be a dream come true,” A.J Epenesa said. “There’s baby pictures of me in Iowa Hawkeyes gear...
“I would have regretted not going to Iowa because that’s the place I belong.”
Showcasing his skills
As one of the top players in the nation, Epenesa will be playing in two elite high school all-star games. The first is the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at noon on Jan. 7, 2017, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
“Some of the best players in the country will be there, and it will be fun going to a competition like that,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to see in college, so it’s basically like seeing college early.”
The second all-star event is a special one to his Samoan heritage. Epenesa will play in the inaugural Polynesian Bowl on Jan 21, 2017, at Aloha Stadium in Halawa, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.
“That’s going to be fun to play in, but also fun to go back to my roots and my cultures, to learn more and be part of it with others,” Epenesa said. “It will be cool.”
Epenesa has been to Hawaii before, but typically only at the airport on the way to his father’s native Samoa.
“I’ve never stayed in Hawaii, so that will be fun, too,” he said.
Epenesa can’t believe it’s been four years since he first pulled on an Edwardsville Tigers football jersey.
“Being 14 in my first high school football game was crazy, and now that I’m 18, looking back through all the memories and all the great players I played with ... it’s an honor to be in such a great program,” he said. “The coaches really preach that it’s not only about making us better football players, but making us better men as well.
“They are just so close at getting a team here that can get to state and win the championship and do great things. They’re right there. There’s no coaching staff in Illinois that works nearly as hard as they do.”