As spring camps close around the Big Ten, we’re looking at one player on each team who enjoyed a breakout spring and appears set to handle an important role when football resumes in August.
Up next is Iowa, featuring a one-time high school running back who’s looking to make a habit of stopping players at his former position.
Spring breakout player: LB Aaron Mends
Mends played in every game but Iowa’s October victory over Northwestern last season. He blocked a punt against Maryland and recorded four tackles in mop-up time.
Expect more from him as a sophomore. Mends has taken hold of the top spot at the weakside position after the graduation of Cole Fisher. And with the absence of outside linebacker Ben Niemann this spring because of injury, Mends fits among the top three alongside Josey Jewell in the middle and Bo Bower.
“Talk about guys making progress from August,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Kansas City, Missouri, native Saturday after the spring game. “If you go back to last spring, night and day, just night and day.”
Mends has made similar strides academically, the coach said, since arriving on campus in 2014.
“He’s got a routine down that’s beneficial. We are seeing the same thing in football.”
Mends brings an element of athleticism to the Iowa linebackers, a position group flush with experience. Jewell rates among the Big Ten’s best. Bower and Niemann are proven contributors. Mends, at 6-foot and 220 pounds, and classmate Jack Hockaday fit into the first group after the projected starters.
If the spring serves as an indicator, playing time should jump for Mends in 2016.
“Great opportunity for Aaron,” said Ferentz, who compared Mends’ improvement to the leap made by former Iowa star linebacker Anthony Hitchens midway through his career.
"He's very athletic," linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. "He moves extremely well. He's very explosive. He's very powerful."