By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa linebacker Aaron Mends made it apparent that he didn't like my question.
I asked Mends on Tuesday if the returning linebackers could rally behind the fact that none of them have much playing experience and use it as motivation to prove the naysayers wrong.
“I wouldn’t say we don’t have much playing experience,” Mends said. "We’ve been practicing and we’ve been playing.”
I then tried to be more specific by saying the linebackers lacked game experience.
“Yeah, I understand, but all the reps that you get, just making them count whether they’re in practice whether they’re on special teams, it all correlates,” Mends said. “A lot of us have played on special teams and I think if you can get the job done there, that should be an indicator of whether you can do it on defense or not.
“So we’ll be ready.”
Mends was polite while answering the question, but you could tell he resents being called inexperienced.
And as a fifth-year senior-to-be, who could blame him?
Mends will turn 23 years old on Oct. 13th, which is the same day Iowa plays at Indiana in the sixth game of the 2018 season.
He has appeared in 38 games for the Hawkeyes, but still hasn’t started a game since high school.
So to outsiders, Mends is inexperienced, as are his fellow linebackers.
He doesn’t have to like that label and has the chance to erase it this fall.
But for now, linebacker is one of the biggest concerns on the team, and for good reason now that Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower all have used up their eligibility.
They combined for 122 starts and 876 tackles, with each recording more than 200 career stops.
Jewell was a consensus All-American at middle linebacker last season, while Niemann and Bower both started for three seasons.
They leave behind a tremendous void in terms of performance and leadership, but with that comes an opportunity for the returning linebackers.
Mends has tried for four years to earn a starting position, and reportedly was close to doing it a few times, but it never happened.
“It’s not really what I had hoped for, but you’ve just got to keep working,” Mends said. “At the end of the day, getting the reps in, you’re going to get better. It’s really about getting better in practice all the time. It really doesn’t matter so much as getting the reps in the fall.
“Just keep working, and eventually your time will come.”
No disrespect to Means, but what he said isn’t entirely true because getting reps in the fall during actual games does matter.
Practice is one thing. But games are entirely different.
And until we see Mends and the new cast of linebackers play significant roles on game day, the jury still is out.
Iowa’s ability to reload rather than rebuild will be tested big time at linebacker. The hope is that Mends and his cohorts can handle the increased responsibility as part of their natural progression.
Almost all of Iowa’s previous linebackers, even the best ones such as Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, made their first impact on special teams
This is it for Mends, his last season to make an impact beyond special teams.
He has stayed the course at Iowa despite being buried on the depth chart at a time when many student-athletes bolt at the first sign of trouble or disappointment.
“It’s kind of something that you’ve got to have intrinsically, just never give up,” said the 6-foot, 228-pound Mends, who is from Kansas City, Mo. “I knew it was going to be difficult coming here. And that’s what I wanted. I don’t think it would be right if I wasn’t fighting my senior year.”
Mends is currently listed as the starter at will linebacker this spring, ahead of junior and fellow weightlifting fanatic Amani Jones. They push each other every day whether lifting weights or playing football.
“He’s a tank,” Mends said of Jones. “We both push each other hard. We’re in that weight room competing every single day. So that’s something to see.”
It is a friendly, but serious competition between Mends and Jones that has major consequences with a starting position for a Big Ten football team on the line.
Mends could draw inspiration from former Iowa linebacker George Lewis, who had to wait until his senior season to start in 2004. Lewis seized the opportunity and was arguably Iowa’s best defensive player in the 30-25 victory over Louisiana State in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
Former Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson also went from being a reserve as a freshman and sophomore to a consensus All-American as a fourth-year junior last season. He has since declared for the NFL draft and could go as high as the first round.
This isn’t to suggest that Mends is destined for stardom, but a reminder that others, including former Iowa linebackers Pat Angerer and Anthony Hitchens, have been in his position before and thrived after being given a chance.
Angerer and Hitchens both needed some time to climb up the depth chart. But once they reached the top, they both seized the opportunity and would go on to play in the NFL, with Hitchens still active.
“That’s something they preach a lot here, just trust the process,” Mends said. “There have been countless examples of guys that I can think of, Pat Angerer, that don’t have a straight shot to the top. Anthony Hitchens, didn’t have it smooth. Guys like that."
"If you keep going, you’ll make it. If you don’t finish the race, then you don’t get to see the fruits of your labor. So just trust in the coaches and know that there have been guys that have done it. Even Josh Jackson last season. He played one season. I’m really good friends with him and I’ve seen him do it. So I’ve seen it firsthand. I know it works. So just trust the process.”