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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent is in a big-time program now and that means big-time goals for himself and his position. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — You can’t travel any farther south in the continental United States than Key West, Florida.

The island sits 90 miles north of Cuba, a vacation draw for those who love to dive and snorkel and watch breathtaking sunsets.

It is not conducive to attracting college football scouts. Especially not if you’re an undersized running back.

Geography was working against Mekhi Sargent, even after he put up a 2,000-yard rushing season as a senior at Key West High. No one noticed.

“You’re always overlooked I feel like,” Sargent said last week at the Iowa football complex, where he enters the summer atop the depth chart at tailback. “You’re at the bottom of the map. Not a lot of people give guys down there an opportunity.”

There was no sense of self-pity in Sargent’s voice, only a lingering determination to keep proving himself.

He led the Hawkeyes with 745 rushing yards last year as a sophomore. It should have been 1,000, Sargent pointed out. That’s his benchmark. That’s what he’s aiming to hit as a junior this fall.

He rushed for 173 yards in a regular season-ending win over Nebraska, a sign that he’s earning the trust of his coaches. That felt good, Sargent admitted. But he also still winces when recalling the 27 yards he gained in a loss against Northwestern in his first career start.

This is how Sargent is wired. It’s how he believes he must think if he’s to continue to succeed where so many have told him he would not.

It started in his childhood in Key West when he began working in middle school to earn money for clothes and shoes that he knew his mother, Yolanda Gardner, could not afford.

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Sargent would scramble up trees to gather Spanish limes and mangoes, bag them up and sell them. His best friend’s grandfather had a construction company and paid Sargent for light labor, like painting fences. Sargent spent one summer working for the city — mowing, raking and shoveling for spending money. He even worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.

That attitude carried over to sports.

“My plan is to outwork the hardest worker,” Sargent said.

After a great high school career, he found himself with one option — Iowa Western Community College. This was not how Sargent pictured things unfolding. He had never been farther from home than Alabama.

He looked up the Reivers’ roster and saw a couple of other players from Florida.

“If they can adapt, I can adapt,” Sargent told himself.

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Off to Council Bluffs he went. The first impression was unsettling.

“I was just like, ‘Where am I?’” Sargent recalled. “I landed. I see nothing but corn fields, farms. The highways are different. I don’t see any bodies of water. No sun.”

Sargent didn’t have enough warm clothes for an Iowa winter. A teammate loaned him a heavy jacket. He didn’t have enough money for food or transportation. He didn’t understand why he was asked to redshirt his first season.

Sargent said he never thought about returning home that first year, but there were a lot of quiet moments in his room when the doubt would creep in.

“Is the game really for me?” Sargent wondered.

The next year, Sargent was a junior college all-American after rushing for 1,449 yards. Iowa’s coaching staff kept visiting him. He sensed he was about to get an offer, and finally did, joining the Hawkeyes last summer and entering a three-man competition with Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin for carries.

Sargent, listed generously at 5-foot-10 and now at a “solid” 212 pounds, made a quick impression.

“His motor’s always going, no matter how many plays he runs. Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to do it 100 percent, full speed. That’s the kind of guy he is,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said of Sargent. “One thing that’s impressed me is how physical he is consistently every single play.”

Sargent doesn’t care that he’s listed as the team’s top running back this summer. He knows Young and Kelly-Martin are tough competitors. He took notice that the Hawkeyes brought in freshmen running backs Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson.

“I always look at myself as the underdog, I always feel like I have something to prove,” Sargent said.

This summer, Sargent earned the coveted “Golden Hawk” award given to anyone who meets all of his strength and conditioning goals. He is still grinding like he has since middle school. He’s confident better things are ahead for him, starting with that 1,000-yard season.

“I feel like I’m here for a reason. I’ve put in a lot of work to be here,” Sargent said.

“I don’t know what’s to come, but I feel like it could be something special.”

Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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