Iowa linemen A.J. Epenesa, Alaric Jackson grow together
HAWKEYES FOOTBALL

Iowa linemen A.J. Epenesa, Alaric Jackson grow together

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IOWA CITY — In this instance, the description fits.

At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, "Little A.J." is really "Little A.J.," and even though he earned all-Big Ten honors a year ago as a sophomore, he’s learning every day from the Iowa football player they call "Big AJ."

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa said the work he put in going head-to-head throughout the Hawkeyes spring drills against junior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson — all 6-6, 320 pounds of him — is helping him refine his skills.

"Big AJ, I would say he is the best pass-setting offensive tackle in the Big Ten, at least the best one I’ve gone against," Epenesa said. "Going against someone as good as him, I feel like it’s going to get my game up."

The feeling is mutual.

"Every day, it’s a grind," Jackson said. "Him being versatile, playing inside and out and using all that speed, strength and power, he’s a great player. Overall, he does it all."

The same grind is playing out on the other end of the line, where defensive end Chauncey Golston joins Epenesa in preparing for his first season in the starting lineup.

His daily assignment at the onset of spring camp was dealing with Tristan Wirfs, who missed the final weeks of the spring drills with a minor injury.

Pairing starters against starters has always been commonplace in Iowa spring practices.

Things can get a little heated at times, but developing that edge isn’t necessarily a bad thing and coach Kirk Ferentz considers pairing starters against starters as a good way for players — experienced or inexperienced — to learn.

"Steel sharpens steel. Anytime you have good players playing against good players, it’s a good challenge," Ferentz said. "There are some interesting dynamics that go on this time of year or in the preseason, but It’s all healthy for the team."

Over the course of spring practices and fall camp, some familiarity does develop.

"We know each other’s tendencies," Epenesa said.

A "stab club" is one of the most frequent rush moves used by Epenesa, something Jackson has sniffed out as the two have trained against each other.

"He doesn’t even shoot that left hand sometimes. He’ll just fake and I’ll go out there looking silly clubbing at nothing because he doesn’t put his hand out there," Epenesa said.

Epenesa gets it.

It’s that competitive environment that is pushing both to become the best they can be, and helping push the Hawkeyes toward their potential as a team.

"Fall camp and spring ball, it can get tiring going up against the same guy every day," Epenesa said. "AJ and I have been banging head for 15 practices. I love the guy and frustrations get high, but we’re out here to get better and help each other get better. We both know that."

That fits into Epenesa’s primary objective as he works toward the start of his junior season.

"What can I do more? What can I do better? That’s where my thoughts are right now," Epenesa said. "That doesn’t change from one year to the next. I feel like I have a lot to learn and improve at."

Despite not starting as part of an eight-player defensive line rotation, Epenesa earned first-team all-Big honors and led the conference with 10.5 sacks last season. His 37.5 tackles included 16.5 tackles for a loss, and only three Big Ten players forced more than the four fumbles Epenesa forced in 2018.

"There is a lot of room for me to grow," Epenesa said. "And, going up against Big A.J. every day is helping me get there."

One of three returning starters on the offensive line, Jackson earned second-team all-Big Ten recognition last season.

He is working to become a more vocal leader and concentrated this spring on growing the consistency in his run blocking.

"Iowa is known for running the football, so it’s very important for me to get better and for us as a team to take it to the next level in the run game," Jackson said.

He said working opposite of Epenesa on a regular basis is helping make that happen.

"When you go up against somebody as good as A.J., you have to get better if you want to compete," Jackson said. "He’s as good as anybody we will see and to work against him, it only helps me. I hope I can push him as much as he pushes me. If that happens, it will be good for both of us."

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