Iowa linebacker Aaron Mends enters his fifth and final football season with a chance to finally be a starter. He's been on the No. 1 line many times before, but has just 13 career tackles and zero career starts.
Cameron Baker, a three-star 2019 linebacker out of Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson, isn’t the highest-rated 2019 football prospect in Iowa.
But you could argue he’s the most intriguing.
Just ask him when was the last time he played football pain-free, and you’ll know why.
"Eighth grade," he answered in a Wednesday conversation with the Register.
Wait — three years ago?
Baker, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound freight train of an athlete, tweaked his right shoulder throwing a baseball the summer after eighth grade. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had a slight tear his right labrum.
It wasn’t too bad at the beginning — just an ache every now and then; a little stab if he moved the wrong way.
Baker is such a talented multi-sport athlete, so there was never a great time for surgery. And as he continued to pile up athletic accomplishments, the muscles continued to tear.
He started on varsity football as a freshman … with a torn right labrum.
He rushed for 1,255 yards and recorded 37.5 tackles, qualified for state wrestling and finished seventh in Class 4A state discus as a sophomore … with a torn right labrum.
He piled up 1,852 rushing yards, earned All-Iowa Elite Team running back honors and led his team with 44.5 tackles this year … with a torn right labrum.
And he became a three-star prospect with offers from Iowa and Northern Iowa … with a torn right labrum.
"I don’t remember the last time I’ve tackled somebody and didn't have a jolt through my shoulder," Baker laughed. "Once I got on the field, I guess the adrenaline took over. So I didn't really think much of it. I just kind of went out on the field and sucked it up."
He won’t have to suck it up anymore.
The 6-foot, 2-inch 225-pound junior broke, spun, and stiff-armed his way past multiple defenders for the score Friday, Sept. 15 at Sioux City West. Holly Baker/Special to the Register
Baker is currently recovering from a Thanksgiving operation on his shoulder. He didn’t wrestle this year and he’s only running track. He was cleared to lift weights last month and he pegs himself at 60-70 percent health. Doctors say he should be fully healthy in June, around when colleges start up their prospect camps.
And that’s one of the main reasons Baker said he’s in no rush to make a commitment: Now, he can show teams what he can do at 100 percent health.
"I just feel like I don't want to make my decision until I’ve gone through all potential options that come in," Baker said. "It is my future, so I just want to make sure that I know that’s where I want to go before I make any decision."
Beyond his offers from Iowa and UNI, Baker holds interest from Nebraska, Purdue, North Dakota State, Kansas State, Wyoming and some from Texas.
He recently visited Lincoln for the Huskers’ junior day. He’s hoping to return for a spring practice soon. He’s also planning a trip up to NDSU, in addition to attending Iowa’s spring game on April 20.
Baker is participating in The Nike Opening regional April 29 in Dallas and possibly the Adidas 3-Stripe Camp in Nashville on May 13. He’ll attend several different college camps after school gets out; Nebraska and Iowa for sure, and maybe Kansas State and Missouri.
"I think he has started to see, 'I don’t have to rush. I have plenty of time,' " Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson head coach Brant Anderson said. "A lot of guys don’t get offered into their senior season. There’s a lot of spots out there still available. 'I can sit on this and have a great season and see who else wants to throw their hat in the ring, and who else I want to consider.'
"Once he gets out there and starts moving that first camp after he’s fully cleared and 100 percent with full range of motion and full strength back, he might feel like a different person."
The Hawkeyes first reached out to Baker as a sophomore and stayed in contact all through his junior year before becoming his first offer this November. UNI extended an offer on March 1.
Like most schools, Iowa and UNI project Baker as a linebacker, Anderson said. Some programs have discussed the potential of Baker playing H-back or flex tight end, such as NDSU.
Iowa and UNI are obviously high on Baker’s radar right now. He’s also a lifelong Huskers fan, so the Nebraska interest is intriguing. Anderson said the Huskers called him on Wednesday to talk about Baker.
- On Iowa, Baker said: "I love it every time I go up there. I love the coaches, I love the environment. Even the athletes, the recruits that have already committed there — they show a lot of respect for other recruits and want the other ones to come play for them. I just love it in general up there."
- On UNI: "It was great. It kind of took me by surprise. I expected it to be a lot smaller, but it’s a pretty big school. It’s a nice school. They have great facilities. I love the coaches — they seem really interested in me and they love to talk to me. I liked the atmosphere at the basketball game; the fans were pretty great."
- And on Nebraska: "I felt like they were pretty interested. I love Lincoln. I grew up a Huskers' fan, so I always look forward to going and checking out their facilities. And I was not let down. I love it up there."
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.