BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — News 4 Sports Director Josh Reed talks with AJ Epenesa’s former coach at Iowa to discuss the Bills second round draft pick.
Few coaches know A.J. Epenesa better than Jay Niemann, Iowa’s assistant defensive line coach. Jay worked with A.J. during his final season with the Hawkeyes. The defensive end earned All-America honors while leading Iowa in sacks in 2019. Niemann shared some thoughts on the newest member of the Bills defense.
Josh Reed: AJ was drafted a lot lower than most people expected. His 40 time was slow and it sounds like that was part of it, should that be a concern?
Coach Niemann: I can’t say what drives the decisions of each of the organizations who looked at AJ. To me, a defensive lineman’s short distance speed and get off is more important than the 40. With AJ, I’ve always felt his film evaluation would be the best indicator of his ability to succeed in the NFL rather than combine numbers.
JR: Why do you think AJ will be successful at the next level?
Coach Niemann: It obviously takes talent to succeed in the NFL, but what makes AJ special is he combines that talent with great character and work ethic, which gives him the best chance for success. He is also hungry to learn and a very coachable player.
JR: What will AJ need to work on?
Coach Niemann: AJ will just have to work at perfecting and refining his overall craft. NFL offensive Linemen will all be very good players. So like anyone transitioning from the college game, it will be a challenge to elevate his game to be productive the NFL level.
JR: What kind of guy is AJ?
Coach Niemann: AJ is obviously an outstanding player, but he is an even better person. He is incredibly humble for a guy who has received so much notoriety. AJ did a great job mentoring the younger players at his position to help them improve too. He comes from a great family so some of that can be attributed to his parents and how he was raised. He is a “team guy”, he will be great in the lockerroom and the people in Buffalo will love him.
JR: Sean McDermott likes players who come from Iowa. He likes the way they’re coached and the culture. How would you describe the way AJ and all the players are coached?
Coach Niemann: There is a very strong culture at Iowa under Coach Ferentz. There are very high standards of expectation in place. Our guys work hard on the field, we are very detailed and our practices are pretty physical. We are a team that is built from the line of scrimmage so we spend a lot of time working on individual defensive fundamental drill work as a D- Line.
JR: Any good AJ stories?
Coach Niemann: We also do a lot of crossover drills vs the OL too, so he got daily work against other good players like Tristan Wirfs who was a first rounder. Those two had some great battles on the practice field and made each other better.