After turning one dream into a reality, A.J. Epenesa believes it is time to chase another one.
The two-time all-Big Ten defensive end from Iowa added his name to the list of underclassmen who have entered their names into the pool of available talent for the 2020 NFL draft.
Projected as a first-round selection in this year’s draft class, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound junior announced Tuesday on Instagram that he had chosen to forego his final year of eligibility, the eighth Hawkeye to reach that conclusion over the past three seasons.
“My time at Iowa has been everything I have dreamt it would be, and I couldn’t be more grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the Swarm and play in Kinnick Stadium in front of 70,000 Hawk fans. I will never forget the many great memories that have come from Iowa,’’ Epenesa wrote.
He thanked the entire coaching staff, the training and support staff for their assistance over the past three years, singling out coach Kirk Ferentz “for giving me a chance and believing in me from the very start.’’
Epenesa went on to thank his parents, writing that they have always had his best interest in mind while offering support and guidance which made him “who I am to today and I am forever grateful to them.’’
He also showed appreciation for his teammates, calling them his “best friends and brothers for life’’ during his journey.
“Over the last three years, I have had the amazing opportunity to play for the University of Iowa, I got to live my childhood dream and represent the black and gold,’’ Epenesa wrote. “After long discussion with my parents and loved ones I have decided to follow another childhood dream and enter into the 2020 NFL draft.’’
Epenesa is the second Hawkeye junior to make that decision this month. Strong safety Geno Stone made a similar announcement last week.
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Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs has not yet announce his plans but he joined Epenesa and Stone in seeking advice from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. He has until Friday to file paperwork if he chooses to leave early and is required to announce that decision by next Monday.
Epenesa based his decision on feedback from the NFL following two dominant seasons on the field for the Hawkeyes.
He started just one year for Iowa, working into the lineup as an every-down end as a junior and finishing with 11.5 sacks, the most by any Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn matched that total in 2009.
Following a slow start to the season, Epenesa dominated from his position in the final games of the Hawkeyes’ 10-3 season.
He earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after collecting a career-high 14 tackles and five tackles for a loss in Iowa’s win at Nebraska and Epenesa was named the defensive MVP in the Hawkeyes’ 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC, recording 2.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries.
In addition to his team-leading sack total, Epenesa finished the season with 49 tackles, leading Iowa with 14.5 tackles for a loss, nine quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.
That work was an encore to the Big Ten-best 10.5 sacks Epenesa recorded while seeing action at end primarily as a pass-rush specialist as a sophomore.
Epenesa completes his college career with 26.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for a loss among 101 career tackles.
His double-digit sack totals in consecutive seasons is a first for a Hawkeye player since Matt Roth accomplished that feat during the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
Epenesa’s departure leaves Iowa for a second straight year with three open starting spots on the Hawkeyes’ four-man defensive front.
End Chauncey Golston returns for senior season in 2020, while tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff exhausted their college eligibility in the Holiday Bowl.