Iowa Football

Iowa football position preview: Mekhi Sargent oozes confidence after a full year as a Hawkeye

Iowa's running game is going to be a collective effort and is going to have to be better

Running backs Toren Young (28) and Mekhi Sargent (10) are photographed during Iowa Hawkeyes media day at the Outdoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Hawkeye players and coaches talked with journalists and posed for portraits on the practice field. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Running backs Toren Young (28) and Mekhi Sargent (10) are photographed during Iowa Hawkeyes media day at the Outdoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Hawkeye players and coaches talked with journalists and posed for portraits on the practice field. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Let’s trace Mekhi Sargent’s journey to Iowa. It’s kind of a wild one.

From Key West (Fla.) High School, a point on the map much closer to Cuba than Iowa, Sargent struck out on his college football journey with his first stop in Council Bluffs and Iowa Western Community College.

The 5-9, 212-pounder had an excellent freshman season, earning junior college All-America honors with 1,449 yards. That was his freshman year after taking a redshirt. He could’ve waited for his sophomore year, but Iowa jumped in with an offer and Sargent jumped at that offer.

Sargent was an “offseason” recruit. A “find” during a sleepy part of the recruiting cycle. So, he landed in Iowa City last June.

Of course, there was a slow start, but by November, Sargent had a feel. He gained 360 of his team-high 745 yards during that month. He also had Iowa’s only two 100-yard efforts in games last season.

OK, now Mekhi Sargent.

He’s had a year in the program. That means a full winter of conditioning with Iowa’s strength and conditioning staff. He’s had a spring at Iowa with running backs coach Derrick Foster.

What has this full year at Iowa done for him?

“Overall, I know I’m a better football player,” Sargent said. “I’m bigger, stronger, faster coming into this year. I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. I’m the smartest I’ve ever been in football. I know a lot about the game.”

That sounds like confidence.

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“I think so,” Sargent said. “The more you know, the better you’ll do out there. You let your athletic abilities take control at some point, but you do need knowledge out there. I feel like that was my curve last year, knowing what I needed to do, knowing what I needed to see out there and being more patient.”

There’s preseason hyperbole and then there’s what Sargent just said. All logic says the reasonable conclusion here is a bigger, better Sargent in 2019.

“He was able to become a little more comfortable in his style of play,” Foster said. “He started a little more robotic, afraid to make a mistake because he’s out there trying to prove that he can play at this level.”

Iowa had six running backs in camp and, when school begins, it will add a few more (camp non-invitees can join the team then). Maybe there was some fishing here by the coaching staff, looking for something, perhaps?

That’s got to be understandable after two seasons where the running game didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, at least according to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. He played O-line at Iowa, coached Iowa’s O-line for five seasons and is in his third as coordinator. That’s authoritative knowledge.

“If you’re going to win football games, you need a consistent running game, period,” Ferentz said. “We’re trying to win more than nine games. We’re definitely going to need a consistent running game. I don’t think anyone would tell you we didn’t feel like we fell short of that the last two years.”

Ferentz broke the news Tuesday that Sargent and fellow junior Toren Young had separated themselves at running back. Friday’s depth chart showed junior Ivory Kelly-Martin in third.

“I think both guys bring an individual and unique skill set in some ways,” Ferentz said. “Toren Young has run the ball as well as he ever has. He’s a tempo setter. Mekhi is a jack of all trades, kind of the utility knife.

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“What we have to do is do a good job of a balancing act there. Those are two of our best players. ... To me, when I look at it, there’s a clear No. 1 and No. 2.”

Will true freshman Shadrick Byrd and/or Tyler Goodson get a shot? That remains to be scene. Foster broke them down this way:

On Byrd: “I tease him all of the time, that he’s a shorter version of Mekhi. He’s very stout, put together very well.”

And Goodson: “This kid can run between the tackles and around the tackles. He’s shown that he can do outside and inside zone. He’s not afraid to stick it up in there. He has tremendous burst, good vision and can change direction.”

You hate to paint a generalized picture with raw numbers, but in the last two seasons, the Hawkeyes have finished 10th and 11th in rushing in the Big Ten.

So yes, a change in direction wouldn’t hurt.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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