1 of 2
Photo by Bill Roseberry
Edwardsville’s A.J. Epenesa is ready for a monster senior season. Epenesa is an All-American and the No. 1-ranked strongside defensive end on rivals.com. He and the Tigers will be looking for their fourth straight Southwestern Conference title.
2 of 2
Photo by Bill Roseberry
A.J. Epenesa of the Tigers works during drills on Aug. 9 at EHS. Edwardsville opens the season on Aug. 26 at Quincy Senior High.
It’s not a secret: A.J. Epenesa is a beast on a football field.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound All-American out of Edwardsville High School is ready to enter his senior season and finish in style. The Tigers will be looking for their fourth straight Southwestern Conference championship and there’s no doubt Epenesa will be in the middle of that fray.
EHS went 9-1 overall last season and 7-0 inside the SWC. Head coach Matt Martin understands his team is younger this season, but there’s veteran leadership there starting with Epenesa.
“A.J. is obviously a talented athlete and we’re going to hang our hat on him, but there are other kids returning with experience,” Martin said. “Daval Torres, Tate Rujawitz, Lucas Davis, Nathan Kolesa, there are other kids that we need to be able to hang our hat on. They need to be leading out here and showing some of these young guys how to go about a proper practice.”
Leading is what the University of Iowa-bound Epenesa wants to do in his final year on the prep gridiron. He’s shown the way through his work ethic and performance in the past, but now he’s ready to be a vocal and more hands-on leader.
“A lot of the vocal leadership was Dan Marinko (two years ago) and Jourdyn Jones and Chrys Colley last year,” Epenesa said. “This year is my time to step up and be the voice of the team, telling guys not do something they’re not supposed to do outside of football and school. I want to be that guy that lets people know they better not mess up or they’re letting the whole team down. I also want to be here to encourage them, the guy that everyone remembers helping guide the way.”
It’s doubtful anybody in Edwardsville will be forgetting about Epenesa, an all-state performer in football, basketball and track and field.
With an inexperienced offense, Martin could make Epenesa even more memorable as a focal point on both sides of the ball. As the No. 1-rated strongside defensive end and 34th overall-rated football player in the nation, according to rivals.com, it’s going to be a nice challenge.
He started taking snaps at running back when fall practices began Aug. 8.
“I love it. The hardest part is knowing all the plays for offense, running back, wide receiver and tight end, and then know all the defensive stuff,” Epenesa said. “It’s also conditioning and I’ve been running all summer with my dad and my brother, so a lot of it comes easy, but you’ve got to keep working. I’m out here working so I can benefit the team on offense and defense. Whatever they need me for, I’m going to be at my best.”
Martin admitted time will tell if the idea is genius or not.
“It’s like anything; it could be a pleasant surprise or something we don’t want to stick with,” Martin said. “Time will tell.” “Obviously we’ve got him there and he’s got that potential; if you get him one-on-one, you like that matchup.”
There will also be a new signal caller this season for the Tigers, senior Brenden Dickmann. EHS will look for solid play from him, along with other fresh faces on offense.
“We have Brenden Dickmann at quarterback,” Martin said. “We also have Kendall Abdur-Rahman; he’s a sophomore quarterback. He’ll play defense and a little bit at quarterback. We have plans for him on offense. To sit here and say exactly what we’re going to do on offense, the kids will determine what we do, whether we’re more of a passing team or a running team, or are we balanced.”
On defense Epenesa could have his hands full, too. Desmond Chapple was the weakside defensive end last year, but has moved on to Northern Iowa. With Chapple gone, teams could start keying on Epenesa, but Martin said that won’t be anything new.
“They did that a lot last year,” Martin said. “A lot of times they would choose to double A.J. and read Desmond. That was the game plan and Kolesa is taking that over. Nathan Kolesa will do a good job for us. Does he have the athletic ability Desmond had? No, but Nathan in his own right is a very good football player and we’ll be OK.”
Edwardsville opens the season Aug. 26 at Quincy. The Tigers return to the friendly confines of the District 7 Sports Complex on Sept. 2 against Rock Island and then delve into SWC play.
They have big home showdowns with O’Fallon (Sept. 16), East St. Louis (Sept. 30) and Belleville West (Oct. 7).
The Flyers will be a formidable foe. Senior wide receiver Jeff Thomas is a 4-star recruit on Rivals and ranked 88th overall in the nation and quarterback Reyondous Estes just committed to Mizzou.
Martin said the conference will be tough, like always.
“When you’re the conference champs, people want to beat you,” Martin said. “We did that with East Side, but there are teams that on paper might not be great matchups but cause us concerns in our conference. O’Fallon always plays us tough, regardless of how they’re doing. East Side; you always have to respect them. Every team poses threats somewhere and you have to take away what they’re going to do or they’re going to hurt you with it.”
As for Epenesa, he’s just keeping himself grounded and not letting anything go to his head. He does that by immersing himself in hard work. Without hard work and support from his family, coaches and teammates, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“A lot of the guys realize that there are some of the things I can do that some of the other guys can’t, but I don’t see it as I can do something and they can’t because they suck,” Epenesa said. “A lot of people think that I have straight God-given talent, which I do, and I’m happy and blessed for it, but I put in a lot of work in my offseason to get better at everything.
“My dad (Eppy Epenesa) posts everything out there on Facebook. There’s proof of me working and getting better every single day. A lot of it didn’t come as easy as people think. I gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears to this game to get better at it. I tell people it’s the extra work and some people don’t do that.
“I’m a strong believer that if you work hard and have that no-days-off mentality, then you will get better because hard work pays off. You will benefit your body and your athletic ability.”
It’s that mentality and maturity that make Epenesa special past his athletic abilities. The combination of character and physical attributes have made him one of the best athletes to come through Edwardsville, which is an elite fraternity to be associated with.
So just how good can Epenesa be for the Tigers in his final year?
“That’s a question I can answer better at the end of the year,” Martin said. “Do I like where he’s at right now? Yes. Is he where he needs to be? No. Is this team where they need to be? No. That’s a legacy question and he hasn’t finished his senior year.”
Follow #AdVsports on Twitter