The sophomore-to-be from Kansas City is listed as the No. 1 weak-side linebacker on an early 2016 Hawkeye depth chart. That's the position played by Cole Fisher for Iowa in 2015. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. – The leading candidate as Iowa’s next weak-side linebacker has nothing more to prove in the weight room, where Hawkeye football players are getting back at it with the spring semester beginning on Tuesday.
Aaron Mends comes in a smallish but mighty package. The redshirt sophomore-to-be in 2016 is listed No. 1 on the depth chart at 6 feet, 212 pounds. He's currently slated to replace Cole Fisher, a more filled-out 6-4, 236.
But don’t be fooled by the roster measurements, like Fisher was.
“I remember when he came in as a freshman; he asked if he could lift with me, when we were doing like bench and clean,” said Fisher, who in 2013 set Iowa’s hang-clean weight record for outside linebackers at 380 pounds. “I was looking at him like, ‘You can't. I don't really want to be picking up the weights left and right the whole entire time.’ And he goes to his first set, and I think he put on weight on top of mine, and it's like, ‘What is going on right now. Who are you?’”
Mends is ready for his introduction to Hawkeye fans too.
He’s a determined weight-lifter who departed Iowa linebackers coach Jim Reid spoke highly about, having "electric feet." But putting on weight has always been one of Mends' biggest struggles, although leading up to the Rose Bowl he said he was up to 220 pounds.
“He was the strongest kid in our school history, that’s for sure,” recalled Terry Vickers, an assistant coach at Kansas City’s Winnetonka High School and Mends’ high-school coaching version of Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. "... Even in his freshman year, you could tell he was going to be a really strong kid.”
Winnetonka keeps totals of combined bench press, squat and hang-clean. Mends' record topped 1,200 pounds.
“The motivation of trying to get a college scholarship was the biggest thing,” Vickers said.
At Iowa, Mends kept it going with Doyle. Mends set the inside-linebacker squat record last spring at 595 pounds, almost three times his weight.
“Coach Vickers -- I’m sorry, Coach Doyle -- has me throw some extra weight on there and see what I can do (to) test me a little bit,” Mends grinned. “It’s kind of been a game between us.”
So Mends can lift. Can he be equally impressive on the field?
To answer that, it might be worthwhile to look a story with similar roots in recent Hawkeye history: Anthony Hitchens.
Hitchens, like Mends, was an undersized recruit (at 6-1, 195). Hitchens put in his time and grew to 233 pounds at Iowa, becoming a two-year starter at weak-side linebacker -- the path Mends would like to follow for three. All Hitchens has done since his all-Big Ten Conference 2013 season is assemble 142 tackles in his first two years with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.
And like Hitchens did in Lorain, Ohio, Mends played multiple positions in high school.
“It gives you opportunities to be a play-maker, make some plays,” Mends said. “I played offense in high school. A lot of past (weak-side) linebackers -- Anthony Hitchens played running back and safety -- it just kind of takes a guy like me that played both positions to still be athletic on defense.”
At Iowa, linebacker is a mental position. It's almost as difficult a position to learn as quarterback on offense.
“Linebacker at Iowa is definitely not something for everybody,” Mends said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”
But when it clicks, it clicks. Iowa’s 2014 linebackers just didn’t put it all together, but in 2015 the Hawkeyes found the right combination in Ben Niemann, Josey Jewell and Fisher to provide stability and limit big plays in a 12-0 regular season. They were so good that Reid was plucked by Boston College to be its new defensive coordinator.
Whoever replaces Reid will have two years of experienced upside ahead. Niemann will be back at outside linebacker as a junior; Jewell, “The Outlaw,” has two more years as middle linebacker; and the weak-side spot is Mends’ to lose, with Jack Hockaday, who played limited snaps as a true freshman, listed as the backup at both middle and weak-side -- sort of playing the Travis Perry role of last season. Junior-to-be Bo Bower is Niemann’s backup on the outside.
Mends certainly seems to have all the tools. He got more playing time down the 2015 stretch, including on Iowa’s third-down “Raider” defense, and he also blocked a punt against Maryland on Oct. 31.
“Aaron, coming in this year, people weren't really sure how good he'd really be,” said Fisher, who had 112 tackles as a senior. “But I think he's excelled this whole entire year, just gotten better and better. He's got the physical tools to be just crazy good. The amount of power and speed that he brings is nothing that I've seen since I've been here.”
IOWA’S 2016 LINEBACKERS
Next season’s year of eligibility in parentheses (*–walk-on):
Projected starters — OLB Ben Niemann (6-3, 225, Jr.), 45 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 4 sacks; MLB Josey Jewell (6-2, 230, Jr.), team-high 126 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 4 interceptions; WLB Aaron Mends (6-0, 212, Soph.), 4 tackles, 1 blocked punt.
Other returnees who have played — Bo Bower (6-1, 228, Jr.), 13-game starter as freshman; Jack Hockaday (6-1, 215, Soph.), 2 tackles on special teams.
Returnees who have never played — Drake Dunker* (6-2, 235, Fr.); Angelo Garbutt (6-2, 210, Fr.); Eric Grimm (6-2, 200, Soph.); Justin Jinning (6-2, 210, Fr.); Jacob Sobotka* (6-3, 225, Soph.); Nick Wilson (6-2, 206, Fr.).
Incoming true freshmen — Amani Jones (6-0, 215, Chicago); Nick Niemann (6-3, 205, Sycamore, Ill.); Kyle Taylor (6-2, 220, Washington, D.C.); Kristian Welch (6-4, 218, Iola, Wis.).
Out of eligibility — Cole Fisher (starter), Travis Perry (reserve).