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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.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa has lost a potential starting linebacker to injury on the last week of spring football practice.

Aaron Mends, who was heading into his fifth-year senior season with optimism and atop the depth chart, suffered a serious knee injury in practice Wednesday that will force him to "miss an extended period of time," according to head coach Kirk Ferentz in a UI press release passed out just before an open practice at Kinnick Stadium.

Ferentz elaborated on the situation later Friday night, saying it put a "damper" on the spring. He was not optimistic that Mends could return for the 2018 season.

"Aaron's a great young guy. He just can't seem to catch a break right now," Ferentz said. "That's tough."

It was just three days ago that defensive coordinator Phil Parker said that if the Hawkeyes were playing a real game this week, Mends would be the starter at weak-side linebacker.

As far as tough-luck injuries go, this would qualify. Mends had been beaten out a few times for starting jobs throughout his Iowa career, but seemed poised to emerge in 2018 with the Hawkeyes graduating all three starting linebackers from last year’s team.

“Keep fighting, fighting," he said just a few weeks ago about his mentality. "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."

Mends’ absence will likely elevate junior Kristian Welch or senior Jack Hockaday into a leading role on the weak side. Both have been competing for starting jobs this spring, and both have played both middle and weak-side linebacker in practice.

Amani Jones has emerged as the leading candidate at middle linebacker, Parker said this week. His role just got that much more important; and Iowa’s depth at a question-mark position just took a hit.

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