Leistikow: Aaron Mends' emergence would be an inspiring Hawkeye story

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It feels like I’ve written this story once a year.

And I looked back: I nearly have.

Is this finally the breakout year for Aaron Mends?

“This is his last year,” Hawkeye linebackers coach Seth Wallace said recently. “So right now would probably be the best time to figure it out.”

Linebacker Aaron Mends, shown during the 2017 Outback Bowl, is still waiting (and fighting) for his first breakthrough starting opportunity with the Hawkeyes. Going into his fifth year, Mends has 13 career tackles.

In 2016, just after the Rose Bowl and the departure of fifth-year senior starter Cole Fisher, the online headline on one of my articles was: “Iowa’s next star linebacker? Meet Aaron Mends.”

Then going into his redshirt sophomore year, the article said, “the weak-side spot is Mends’ to lose.”

Lose it he did — to Bo Bower, not long before the 2016 opener.

Bower would grip that starting job for two years, and Mends even dropped to third string in 2017 behind sophomore Amani Jones.

It would’ve been the easy path at that point for Mends to give up. Or mail it in.

He's done neither.

And now, as Iowa hits the halfway mark of spring practice, Mends is back on the No. 1 line at weak-side linebacker.

If he can hold onto the spot — and ultimately shine in it — Mends would be one of the feel-good stories of the 2018 football team.

I asked Mends this week: How did you fight through the low points?

What came out of his mouth was nothing short of inspiring for anyone who has had hopes dashed, over and over.

“It’s something you’ve got to have intrinsically," he said. "I knew it was going to be difficult coming here. That’s what I wanted. I don’t think it would be right if I wasn’t fighting my senior year."

In other words: If it's something worth having, it's worth fighting for.

As he continued his answer, he ticked off breakthrough stories of past Iowa linebackers that went on to stardom in college and the NFL.

“Pat Angerer didn’t have a straight shot to the top. Anthony Hitchens didn’t have it smooth,” Mends said. “Guys like that, if you keep going, you’ll make it. 

“Even Josh Jackson last year, he played one season — I was really good friends with him — and I saw him do it. ... I know it works. Just trusting the process.”

Angerer, a picture of determination, became a Hawkeye legend at middle linebacker and a 39-game starter with the Indianapolis Colts.

Hitchens, like Mends (6-foot, 228 pounds) an undersized but athletic prospect out of high school, recently signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Jackson, once an under-recruited cornerback, is about to become a millionaire and possible first-round NFL Draft pick after a breakout redshirt junior season.

Related coverage:

Mends finds hope in history.

Those inside the Hawkeye program don’t question Mends’ work ethic. He is one of the fiercest weight-lifters in the building, having only recently ceded his squat-press record to Jones. And Wallace noted that, "I can’t say anything negative in the way he’s operated and the way that he’s led this group of linebackers."

But something just hasn’t clicked. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker once said it’s “more mental than physical" for Mends. It’s telling that the two tackles Mends recorded in his first career game (the 2015 season opener against Illinois State) remains a career high. 

With Fisher, for example, what Iowa asks from its weak-side linebacker (aka the "Will") didn’t click until Year Five. Once it did, Fisher started 14 games for a Rose Bowl team.

“We ask the ‘Will’ to do a lot of different things,” explained Mends, whose 13 career tackles have mostly come on special teams. “We play man on the back side sometimes. We play a lot of variations of Cover 2. It’s really about being fundamentally sound, making sure you’re watching your keys.

“You’re also expected to make a lot of plays in the run game. It’s just making sure you can balance those — not play too run-heavy, not play too pass-heavy.”

Mends certainly doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job.

But, finally, there are openings.

There are four inside linebackers leading the competition for two open jobs vacated by Bower and all-American Josey Jewell: Mends and junior Kristian Welch are the listed starters; Jones and senior Jack Hockaday are the listed backups.

And it’s not impossible to imagine a graduate transfer joining the mix. As an example of what's out there, Northern Illinois (Iowa’s season-opening opponent) recently learned it would lose top linebacker Jawuan Johnson to the grad-transfer market.

Going into the 2017 season, I wrote an article titled: “Despite demotions, Aaron Mends remains impressively positive."

Perhaps his performance can help author a new headline in 2018.

He aims to be an inspiration to those back in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.

Yet he's already proven to be a model of perseverance.

Not to mention a guy every Hawkeye fan can rally behind.

“The way I was raised, I always wanted to do something and commit to it,” he said. “Make sure you’re all in, whatever you do.

“Keep fighting, fighting. Just don’t give up. Because why work so hard and never see the fruits of your labor? Eventually, you’ll get an opportunity. And you’ll have no regrets at the end of the day.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.