IOWA CITY – A.J. Epenesa learned more than he ever could have anticipated during his freshman season on the Iowa football team.
Now, the sophomore defensive end said he expects to build on what he got done during his rookie season.
Interviewed for the first time in an Iowa uniform during the Hawkeyes’ media day Friday, Epenesa said he played a few more snaps than he anticipated as a freshman and credited teammates with helping get him ready to play.
“I know there are a lot of things that I have to get better at and I keep working on all of that now,’’ Epenesa said. “The older guys who had been here for four, five years, they shared so much knowledge with me. That is the Iowa way, players helping players, and it gave me a chance to compete.’’
Epenesa finished with 4.5 sacks and led the Hawkeyes with eight quarterback hurries last season, providing a hint of the abilities that allowed the five-star recruit to see quick playing time.
In addition to adding 16 pounds to a 6-foot-5 frame that now checks in at 277 pounds, Epenesa has spent the offseason working to develop a better understanding the big picture.
“I’m just one small piece of the team. I’m still learning every day how it all works together and how I fit into that,’’ Epenesa said.
He expects to again be part of a rotation on Iowa’s defensive front.
“That worked well for all of us last season and it gives us the best chance to compete as a team,’’ Epenesa said.
TIME FLIES: The top returning tackler on the Iowa football team is Jake Gervase, a senior free safety who finished with 58 tackles last season and was second on the team with three interceptions.
“When I arrived here, the older guys all said, ‘Enjoy every minute of it, the time really goes by fast’ and then, I didn’t much of it,’’ Gervase said.
“They’re right. It’s the last fall camp. The time flies and as the season gets closer, you want to make the most of it to put yourself in a spot to have the best year possible.’’
EARLY IMPRESSIONS: There will be playing opportunities for several true freshmen this season, coach Kirk Ferentz said.
One week into fall camp, he sees opportunities in the secondary as well as at linebacker, running back and defensive line. Ferentz said he doubts that any of Iowa’s true freshmen receivers will work their way into the rotation.
“With this new redshirt rule, it gives us a chance to get some guys on the field, get a look at them,’’ Ferentz said, expecting to know more about the possibilities as camp progresses.
One freshman who has caught the eye of defensive coordinator Phil Parker is Julius Brents, whose length is giving the cornerback a chance to contribute early as part of the Hawkeyes’ nickel package.
“He has shown us a lot of good things already,’’ Parker said. “We’ll see how it goes.’’
RUNNING ROTATION: It wouldn’t surprise Ferentz if a rotation of three running backs emerges.
Sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin currently top the depth chart, but junior college transfer Mekhi Sargent is positioning himself for a spot in the mix.
“Mekhi looks like he is starting to warm up. He had a really good day (Friday), so that’s encouraging,’’ Ferentz said. “I could see him realistically helping this year, absolutely. We have three backs we feel good about that have virtually no experience. It’s an interesting group.’’
CLOSER INSPECTION: The opening of an additional assistant coaching position allowed Iowa to move LeVar Woods into a role where he solely works as the Hawkeyes' special teams coordinator, leading to additional attention for Iowa kickers and punters.
“We have an assistant in our room all the time now and it does make a difference,’’ kicker Miguel Recinos said. “The feedback and input we are getting is more substantial and I think that will lead to results on the field.’’
MOVING INSIDE: Luke Empen arrived at Iowa as a tight end but the freshman from Northeast has already made a position change.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder has moved inside and is now listed as an offensive lineman on the Hawkeye roster.
Redshirt freshman Joe Ludwig is the only other player to make a position change so far in camp, shifting from linebacker to fullback.
TICKETS MOVING: Tickets are moving quickly for Iowa’s four September home games.
There are around 5,000 tickets left for the Hawkeyes’ Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois, and between 2,000-2,500 tickets remain for games at Kinnick Stadium the following three Saturdays against Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin.