One of the more intriguing position battles of the Spring for Iowa centers around the weak outside linebacker spot. It was controlled last year by departing senior Cole Fisher who stepped in and ran away with the role during the 2015 season.
Fisher was a special teams demon that hailed from Omaha, Nebraska. He had not contended much for the starting roles until this past Fall where he emerged and became the starter alongside Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann.
With Fisher making his farewell, the spot is up for grabs once again and it is up in the air between sophomores Aaron Mends and Jack Hockaday. It is Mends' third year in the program after redshirting his first year on campus and then contributing on special teams and in spot duty during last year's Rose Bowl season. Hockaday was a true freshman a year ago and began contributing on special teams midway through the year, thus burning his redshirt.
Mends, from Kansas City, is listed at 6-foot and 220 pounds and is quite the athletic specimen with a mighty burst and explosion. Hockaday, a native of Illinois, enters spring football at 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds.
For now, Mends has the upper hand.
"Aaron Mends is at the Will linebacker position," said his position coach Seth Wallace, who is in his first year mentoring the linebacker unit. ""He's gaining experience right now. He hasn't seen a whole lot with Cole Fisher really solidifying that position last year. But Aaron's jumped in there, gained valuable experience, took what growth he had last year and he's continued to build on it."
Mends may hold the job for now, but Hockaday is nipping at his heels. The sophomore from Kansas City has some work to do to stay in the role he is now and trot out at Kinnick Stadium in August for the first defensive snap. He has all the athletic tools you'd want from a linebacker but catching up in other aspects will be on the agenda.
"He's very athletic," assistant Seth Wallace shared about his linebacker. "He moves extremely well. He's very explosive. He's very powerful. You just can't be slotted in there because you're athletic. There's a lot that goes into it based on what we do defensively from a mental standpoint."
The third year player from Missouri even holds the squat record at Iowa but his physical traits will only get him so far.
"Not to take anything away from his squat record, but I don't know how much of that actually equates to playing the Will linebacker position other than what I mentioned earlier, that he's extremely explosive," Wallace continued. "What Aaron needs to do right now is he just needs to hone in on a position that's not easy to play. It's really getting his feet wet. But what he needs to do right now is he needs to concentrate on that because we have seen what he can do special teams-wise."
The mental part hasn't come to Mends yet but he has time to accomplish that feat. And if all goes well, it's his job to lose.
"Right now it's slowing the game down," Seth Wallace noted about Mends. "The only way to slow the game down mentally and even physically, because you have to slow your feet down to slow it down mentally, is to get the experience. Right now he's just taking as many reps as he can and seeing as many different pictures as he can based on what he's seeing offensively."
On the other hand is Jack Hockaday of Illinois who was one of just a couple freshmen a year ago that did not redshirt. That move by Iowa showed how much belief they had in his game and how they thought he could compete for a significant role the following season. That time has come and he's now in a heated position battle to become a starting linebacker for the Hawkeyes.
"Jack is young," linebackers coach Seth Wallace pointed out about the second-year player. "The one thing Jack did get last year is he got some game experience from a special teams standpoint. He kind of got his feet wet. He's not a fish out of water, so to speak. He jumped in there and accepted his role. I think he sees where there is a competition going on between he and Aaron. Because of that, he comes to work every day."
Hockaday has been eager to see the field and that notion from Wallace is exhibited by how they've moved him to different spots and give him some position flexibility. That tells me they want to find as many ways to get him on the field as they can.
"We've got the opportunity with that second team to move some guys around," Wallace stated about his next group of guys at linebacker. "For instance, Jack took a few snaps at the Mike linebacker position as well. We just need to see how it all fits."
Mends leads but it's showed to be a heated battle up to this point. Hockaday would not have had his redshirt burned a year ago had they thought he wasn't ready for this moment. Mends does hold the experience edge and the explosion edge and the quickness edge. But Hockaday isn't fading.
"I'd like to say it's real close," Wallace said about the battle between Mends and Hockaday for the weak outside linebacker role. "There's days where you walk off the field, one may have had a better day than the other. That's going to be the case at that position. I think it's different with maybe Josey (Jewell) and Angelo (Garbutt). Even with Bo (Bower) and Nick (Wilson)."
"These guys are working together," he added. "It's a small group. The nice thing about a small group is the closeness is there. They all try to coach each other. They all try to critique each other which is building unity, but also building accountability throughout that room."
For the spring portion, linebackers Ben Niemann and Jacob Sobotka are out so the starting three have been Bo Bower, Josey Jewell, and Aaron Mends. The only other four bodies in the room are Jack Hockaday, Angelo Garbutt, Nick Wilson, and Justin Jinning.