In Loyola’s 44-43 win over Maine South in Week 2, senior Omar Mendez (No. 50 in photo above) made plays his defensive line coach, Beau Desherow, was hoping he would make and needed him to make as a newly minted starter this season.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive tackle faced off and won some battles against Maine South senior offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis, a 6-5, 330-pound Michigan State commit. It was a testament to Mendez’s brute strength and his improved technique.
“One play that stood out to me was when he stood up and locked out Jarvis and was able to get in on a tackle,” Desherow said. “That play right there showed me a lot.”
Mendez did more than his primary job, too. He pursued the ball with the relentlessness Desherow demands from his players. Against the Hawks, Mendez started playing like Ben LeRoy, one of the top defensive tackles in the state last season who now plays for Northern Illinois University.
“I’ve started to see the switch flip with Omar,” Desherow said. “Before, he seemed satisfied getting his gap. Now, he’s gone ahead and taken the next step of chasing the ball with that reckless abandon. He keeps getting better at it.”
Mendez said backing up LeRoy last year in his first full season on varsity was a blessing.
“I learned to be tenacious from Ben,” Mendez said. “We paired up a lot during drills, and he was so strong and explosive. He helped me get that way.”
Always one of the bigger kids on his grammar school’s football teams, Mendez naturally played on both sides of the line.
After his fourth-grade season playing for the St. Edward School in Chicago’s Mayfair neighborhood, he declared the defensive line was for him.
“I just liked the D-line so much better,” Mendez said. “You are more free to do what you want, and I like the glory of sacking the quarterback.”
Even though Mendez didn’t get much of an opportunity on game days as a junior, Desherow agreed playing behind LeRoy was good for him.
“Watching Ben play emphasized to Omar what he needed to do,” Desherow said. “He saw how Ben used his hands, how he locked up with offensive linemen. He saw the type of effort it took to play at a high level.”
Mendez said he has become a better student of his position. Knowing his assignments and his role and how it relates to the greater scheme allows him to play more freely, he said. Through three games, Mendez has 10 unassisted tackles and two quarterback hurries.
“Now, it’s all about reacting,” Mendez said. “Before, I had trouble because I was trying to figure everything out during the play.”
As Mendez’s play has improved, so has his leadership, according to Desherow. That’s important, considering the inexperience of this year’s defensive line. Like Mendez, senior Vito Cannizzaro, senior Matt Gordon and junior Marty Geary all are first-year starters. Geary played on the offensive line prior to this season.
Mendez said Geary is one player he’s been mentoring this season. The two are partners during practice drills, a situation similar to the one Mendez had with LeRoy.
“I want to make him better,” Mendez said. “I was him last year, and I want him to realize what it takes to play this position. I know he has what it takes to be a good defensive lineman.”
Desherow said he’s noticed how Mendez has tutored the younger players. It’s a responsibility the coaches expect the seniors to embrace.
“Omar isn’t traditionally a vocal guy, but he’s starting to speak up more,” Desherow said. “His leadership mostly comes from example. It’s how he prepares and what kind of effort he gives. Effort isn’t something you can turn on come game day. I can see the other defensive linemen following suit.”
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Mendez to LeRoy, one of the most impactful defensive players Loyola has had since John Holecek became head coach in 2006. But Desherow said Mendez has the potential to be a standout lineman.
“It’s always a process of evaluating yourself,” Desherow said. “The next big step for him is to assert himself against opponents, to take over the interior of the defensive line. He has that ability, and he’s close to being that dominant guy in the middle.”