INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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IOWA CITY — You want to make this something grand. It’s not often in the life of a football player where he’s able to blow the dirt out of his nose and dig himself out of the depth chart graveyard.
You want the horns to blow. You want maybe a flyover. These occasions call for something, something more than what Bo Bower, the grand marshall of this story of renewal, offered up this week.
“It’s like we’re all doing,” said Bower, who will get first shot at weakside linebacker for the No. 15 Hawkeyes when they open the season Saturday against Miami (Ohio). “We’re all just trying to get on the field. Anyway we can try to do that, we’re going to do it.”
This is what you get with Bo Bower, a 6-1, 235-pounder from West Branch. He walked on at Iowa in 2013 and earned a scholarship and a starting job at outside linebacker in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. You don’t remember that parade, either, because, well, you heard the man.
“He started 13 games as a redshirt freshman and didn’t get quite the playing time (last year),” said longtime West Branch High School football coach Butch Pedersen, “but he never bawled about it. He did the same thing at West Branch. He started for me as a sophomore and played a variety of positions, wherever we needed him. It didn’t shock me at all that he’s done what he’s done. I’m extremely proud of him.”
On the last day of a bleak, dreadful and wholly unsatisfying football season in 2014, Bower lost his job.
It was somewhere in the third quarter of the Tax Slayer Bowl. The score was abominable, something like 42-7. Bower was subbed out for Ben Niemann, who planted an anchor at the outside linebacker position and is now going into his second season as a starter.
Bower slid inside to weakside linebacker. He ran No. 1 on the depth chart in the spring of 2015, but fell short in a camp battle with senior Cole Fisher.
This is where a lot of college football players’ dreams go night-night.
“You hope all players just keep pushing, but it’s easier to say that and it’s easier to say have a good attitude and all those types of things, but he’s lived it,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We all have our moments in private where, boy, this and that and that type of thing, but he’s never demonstrated anything but a positive attitude since he’s been here.”
Bower arrived in Iowa City as a 200- or 205-pound walk-on linebacker. During his first spring practice period, he suffered a broken thumb. The cast looked kind of out of place, with it being bigger than most of the rest of his arm.
As you might imagine, Bower blew right through that, too. He’s not the self-conscious type. He was an undersized linebacker with a broken thumb and he came out on the other end of that as a scholarshipped starter.
“Everyone comes in a little skinny, I feel like,” Bower said. “That goes away quick.”
Bower came up in the powerful West Branch program, which works closely with a local strength and conditioning coach. The Bears have won four state titles (including three under Pedersen). They’ve been to the state playoffs the last eight consecutive seasons. There’s an army of all-staters and Shrine Bowl participants.
You have to fight for your spot and you have to fight to keep it, because there’s another kid who wants to live his dreams playing in the “Little Rose Bowl,” the nickname given to West Branch’s Oliphant Street Field.
“When Bo was here, he was one of our hardest workers in the weightroom,” Pedersen said. “He’s shown what sticktoitivness does. That’s a message to our team now. We’re not going to quit. He had two options, basically. He could’ve laid down and bawled about it or get up and Bo got up and fought.”
Maybe part of this comes from his family. Bower’s folks, Tammy and Chris, run Bower Drywall out of Iowa City. You know Bo probably has put some sweat equity into the family business.
“His dad and mom weren’t the types who’d let him sit around all day and do nothing,” Pedersen said. “They made him accountable, they made him work. He wasn’t one of those couch potatoes at all and you knew his work ethic came from his mom and dad.”
By now the point that Bower is completely practical in his manner has been hammered home. If there’s residue to losing your spot in the starting lineup, it’s probably that you now have a keen awareness that it can go away.
And that is the specter here. Bower forged ahead of sophomore Aaron Mends for the first shot at the weakside linebacker spot for the 2016 Hawkeyes. Camp was maybe the first lap. The race is just starting.
“It’s really a pretty good story,” Ferentz said about Bower being named No. 1, and then “and that one is not nailed down yet.”
Mends came to Iowa as a do-it-all high school star out of the Kansas City, Mo., area. He made 212 career tackles and rushed for 1,790 yards in his career. Iowa, Iowa State and North Dakota State offered him.
Mends owns weightroom records at Iowa, including a record squat of 595 pounds for inside linebackers. He has all of the tools. He’s a third-year sophomore, so he has put in his time.
“Anyone who plays the weakside position is going to be new to it,” Mends said this spring. “There’s definitely going to be some competition there, but it’s going to be good for us. We’re all pushing each other to be the best. At the end of the day, we all just want the best will linebacker out there.”
Ferentz noted twice this week that the position wasn’t nailed down. He also said three players might see time there — Bower, Mends and, perhaps, true freshman Amani Jones.
Perhaps like Bower in 2014, Mends holds expectations for himself. He was listed No. 1 all the way up until the first depth chart of the season was released. How does he handle it? That remains to be seen, obviously.
“Everybody has been competing, and we’ll let the guys continue to compete, too,” Ferentz said. “There’s no finality to any of this stuff now. That’s what makes a team good, just letting guys compete and battle out there. I can’t say enough about Aaron, too. I mean, he’s really got a great attitude. He’s a really good young guy. He’s improved a bunch.
“It’s not a knock on him at all. It’s just Bo is doing a little better right now.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Mends is ticketed for some duty in third down rush packages. Last season, Mends earned time as a stand-up rusher in “raider packages” on third down. He moved into that role after Bower moved out and replaced Niemann in the first half of the Nebraska game, when Niemann suffered a concussion.
Bower also played special teams all last season. He kept value, stayed sharp and didn’t bawl.
Bower did allow himself a little bit of a smile this week. It had nothing to do with a triumphant return as a starter. It was someone asking him about the water slide video at fellow linebacker Josey Jewell’s farm in Decorah this summer.
Yeah, that was fun. You know what else is fun? Being on the field.
“It always is,” Bower said. “It’s always fun to be on the field.”
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