The linebacker has been passed over several times for a starting role, but he's keeping an upbeat attitude about it. Chad Leistikow
IOWA CITY, Ia. — “Where’s Aaron Mends?”
It’s become a seasonal curiosity from Hawkeye fans (and members of the media) about the Iowa football program’s freakishly strong and athletic linebacker.
This August's update: He’s still here.
And on Saturday’s “Kids Day at Kinnick” open practice, there he was, running with the Hawkeyes’ second unit at weak-side linebacker.
Once No. 1 on the Hawkeye depth chart, the fourth-year junior is listed No. 3 now, behind senior Bo Bower and sophomore Amani Jones.
It would seem to be a frustrating situation. After getting beaten out by Bower last offseason, Mends is now stuck behind three senior starters at linebacker. And up-and-coming youngsters like Jones (who sat out Saturday's practice) and middle linebacker Kristian Welch are passing him on the depth chart.
But he remains surprisingly upbeat.
“I’ll definitely play a role that’ll be important to this team,” Mends said.
“Just like everyone.”
He’s certainly not mailing in the effort. Mends recently upped his own Iowa weight-room record for linebackers for squat press: He maxed out at 622 pounds, an improvement over his previous high of 610. Jones is close on his heels, with a max of 605.
“It just takes a lot of heart and determination,” Mends said. “I’ve got Amani Jones chasing me — put a little fire under me.”
Couple that strength with some stuff that’s been said about him — former linebackers coach Jim Reid once marveled at his “electric feet” and ability to make eye-popping power tackles — and it’s no wonder Iowa fans wonder what’s keeping him off the field.
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Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said this spring that with Mends, it’s “more mental than physical.”
So, for now, Mends keeps plugging along.
“I wouldn’t say it’s anything specific that’s keeping me off the field,” Mends said. “The coaches just think there’s more I can improve on.
“If I was the starter and I wasn’t the best player, that wouldn’t make any sense. Our coaches are just doing what they think is going to help the team.”
Mends has shown flashes of talent. He blocked a punt against Maryland as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He’s been sprinkled into Iowa’s “Raider” third-down package with some success. He posted his second career sack against Florida in the Outback Bowl.
After getting beat out for a starter spot year after year, it would have been an easy decision for him to transfer.
But he’s still here.
“He gives some consistent effort every day,” starting middle linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He’s never going to be the one dragging down (the team). He’s been playing pretty well, and we’ll just see how it works out here as this camp comes to an end.”
Maybe this isn’t going to Mends’ year to shine. Maybe he never will here. Maybe he’ll put himself in a position to graduate-transfer to another program — the paths buried Hawkeye backups Maurice Fleming and Jonathan Parker chose after their fourth years the past few offseasons.
Or maybe he’s lying low for now but someday will emerge as the next great story of patience paying off in Hawkeye football.
In 2015, that guy was Cole Fisher — a fifth-year senior linebacker who broke through as a 14-game starter for a Rose Bowl team after four years of obscurity.
In 2016, that guy was Anthony Gair — a forgotten safety who in his final year rose to the starting ranks to help solidify Iowa’s defense in impressive November wins over Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska.
Mends seems to be thinking, saying and doing the right things as he waits for his chance.
“Everything worth achieving happens over time,” Mends said. “When I finally break through, it’ll be a proud moment, and I’ll know that I’ve earned it. And nobody can take that away from me.”