IOWA CITY, Iowa — Aaron Mends is an aberration of sorts when it comes to college football.
He’s entering his fifth year at Iowa and has never started a game. Two springs ago in 2016, Mends was slated to start at weakside (will) linebacker. He started alongside Josey Jewell all spring and into the offseason. By August, it became a three-way competition. By the season opener, Mends was the backup behind Bo Bower.
Mends still competed. He remained patient. He didn’t give up and transfer like many before him had and many will in the future. Now, midway through his final spring, Mends finally could have his shot atop the depth chart.
“I would say it was the way that I was raised,” Mends said. “I always wanted to make sure you do something and commit to it. Make sure you’re all in. Whatever you do. I just knew for me internally out of high school — I wasn’t heavily recruited — in my mind I was just thinking, ‘I’ve got an opportunity to come here.’
“The coaches, they tell you stories all the time of when you first get here so you know going in, you put those at the back of your head, but it’s really about whenever those times come. … They told me it was going to be difficult, just keep fighting and fighting. 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 (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) is one of Iowa’s strongest players. A year ago, Mends held the linebacker record for squat after lifting 610 pounds, which was just 5 pounds shy of any defender in Iowa history. He’s also quick and explosive. He used those skills to play off the edge on sub-packages and on special teams units the past three seasons.
Few, if any, Iowa linebackers have been more athletic in recent memory. Yet Mends never could reclaim that starting spot. Bower stayed ahead of him, and Mends continued to bide his time.
“At the end of the day it’s not really what I had hoped for, but you’ve got to keep working,” Mends said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to get your reps in, you’re going to get better.
“Eventually your time has come. Hopefully my time has come.”
Linebackers coach Seth Wallace, who also serves as assistant defensive coordinator, was vague when describing the competition at inside linebacker, both past and present. Currently, Mends is competing primarily at will linebacker, while senior Jack Hockaday, junior Amani Jones and junior Kristian Welch are all working at both middle and will.
“Aaron is going to certainly have his opportunity,” Iowa linebackers coach and assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace said. “Right now I can’t say anything negative in the way that he’s operated and the way that he has led.”
“We really haven’t made a strong determination on anything yet,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re about two-thirds of the way done so we’re taking it to the last practice.”
The foursome all put the team first and respect other as teammates, but it’s a fierce battle in every rep. Jones and Mends appear to be the closest of the four, and they had their own personal competition play out. Last year, Mends edged Jones for the linebacker squat record. This year, Jones won it with a lift of 625 pounds, just ahead of Mends.
“Me and Aaron, we try to get together every day,” Jones said. “I’m trying to pick his brain, he’s trying to pick my brain. He asks me questions, I ask him questions. It’s like vice versa.”
Mends has made an impact at Iowa. In 2015, he blocked a punt that led to a touchdown against Maryland. Later that year, he sacked Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook in the Big Ten Championship Game. He added another sack in the 2017 Outback Bowl but has just 11 career tackles.
By staying with the Hawkeyes, Mends’ perseverance could help him become a starter in his last opportunity. It’s that mentality that’s kept him with the program even when most players in his position would have transferred.
“It’s kind of something that you’ve got to have intrinsically, just never give up, just come in,” Mends said. “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. Just have an opportunity, just come out every day and just play with great guys and take on more of a leadership role, drives me to keep going and finish it out. Finish out the race.”