Meet three Hawkeye senior role players who could be pivotal in game against Illinois

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Shaun Beyer watched his fellow Iowa tight ends grab 17 passes for 266 yards in four games against Illinois before finally getting in on the action last year with a 40-yarder that remains his longest play in a Hawkeye uniform.

Mekhi Sargent pounded the Illini for 121 rushing yards and a pair of scores two years ago before being limited to a single, six-yard gain in that 2019 Hawkeye win.

Jack Heflin grew up in Prophetstown, Illinois, rooting for the Hawkeyes, not his home state team. When the defensive tackle was looking to transfer from Northern Illinois this offseason, the Illini were among those pursuing him, but he politely declined. He was too flattered by Iowa’s interest. He’ll be wearing a Tigerhawk when the teams meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Stadium in a game televised on FS1.

That’s three valuable seniors with three distinct storylines, all eager to help the Hawkeyes (4-2) win a seventh consecutive game in this rivalry.

"It doesn't take much for us to get fired up about playing the Hawkeyes,” said Illinois coach Lovie Smith, seeking to beat them for the first time.

Smith’s team is 2-3, but that includes back-to-back wins. This should be a competitive game, the kind that may get decided by a less-heralded senior player making the right play at the right time.

Shaun Beyer, in his fifth year at Iowa, has become one of the best tight ends in the nation. The Shellsburg native had a 40-yard catch in last year's win over Illinois.

Shaun Beyer: His time has arrived as a tight end ranked one of nation's best

Beyer, a Shellsburg native, has bided his time while learning his craft from the likes of George Kittle, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and Nate Wieting. He came to Iowa as a wide receiver, but checks in at 6-foot-5, 248 pounds as a bona fide tight end now.

How good has Beyer been this year? Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best tight end in the nation this week. That’s certainly a testament to his skills as a blocker, which is what he first admired about Kittle’s game.

More:Leistikow: Shaun Beyer's emergence would be a welcome, feel-good story for 2019 Hawkeyes

But Beyer is also having an impact in the passing game, including a brilliant 22-yard catch on Iowa’s opening touchdown drive last Friday in a win against Nebraska. Beyer backpedaled and snared that one with a single hand, later downplaying the talent that took.

“You never really plan on getting a one-handed catch. I was really trying to focus on catching the ball with two hands,” Beyer said. “You kind of just throw one up and hope to come down with it. So I got kind of lucky this last week.”

Beyer had the first seven catches of his Hawkeye career in 2019, including that 40-yarder against Illinois. He has nine this year, good for 121 yards. He is still seeking his first college touchdown.

Beyer was aware of his PFF grade when asked about it this week. He said it means little to him.

“I’m just trying to continue to improve and get better every day, whether that’s on the field or just watching film and trying to get down the little things that would make me improve as a player,” he said.

Iowa has relied on its tight ends to move the football against Illinois in recent years. Beyer and Illinois native Sam LaPorta are providing a solid one-two punch at that position, both still seeking that elusive initial Hawkeye touchdown. They could both get that chance Saturday.

Mekhi Sargent celebrates his touchdown against Nebraska with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Nov. 27. Sargent has impressed Ferentz with his unselfish attitude after losing his starting job to sophomore Tyler Goodson.

Mekhi Sargent: He's in a backup role, but still carrying a starter's mentality

Sargent has been backing up Tyler Goodson as Iowa’s lead back this season, but he has a solid three years under his belt since transferring from Iowa Western Community College. He has 1,935 yards from scrimmage as a Hawkeye, yet still volunteers to help out on special teams.

Two weeks ago, Sargent ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a win at Penn State. Last week, he carried the ball only five times against Nebraska, although one of those also ended with him in the end zone.

Earlier:Mekhi Sargent has traveled a long way to the top of Iowa's depth chart, and he's not done

So, if he’s a role player this year, it’s certainly a valuable role. Sargent is averaging a gaudy 6.2 yards per carry, never knowing from week to week what his workload will be.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz praised Sargent and Goodson for how they’ve handled the job-share.

“The guys are positive and work with each other and help each other and that's what you hope your whole football team does. Anybody wants to model their behavior, it's a good thing for our football team, it's good for our young guys,” Ferentz said.

As if to illustrate that point, Sargent said this of Goodson, a sophomore who has supplanted him as a Hawkeye starter: “Tyler’s a great athlete, first and foremost. He comes in, works hard, competes and just makes the whole running back room better. Because all of us are striving to be great.”

Iowa has had a 100-yard rusher in three of the past four meetings with Illinois, which is allowing 195 yards per game on the ground. Goodson and Sargent are both threats to top the century mark Saturday.

Jack Heflin (96)  helps Iowa teammate Chauncey Golston bring down Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell on Oct. 24. That was Heflin's first game as a Hawkeye, after the Illinois native grew up rooting for them.

Jack Heflin: Illinois native finally realizing his dream to be a Hawkeye 

Heflin was not a big-time prospect out of high school. Of course, he wasn’t yet 6-4, 312 pounds.

Illinois wasn’t after him originally. Iowa either. But, after three years as a starter at Northern Illinois, Heflin was good enough to be voted his team’s best defensive player by the coaching staff. He got a lot of attention when he put his name in the transfer portal, but seeing the Hawkeyes among his suitors made his decision easy.

“It was an honor to see Iowa on the list,” Heflin said.

“Being able to put the Tigerhawk on my head every day and come to work here, it’s lived up to all the hype in my head.”

Heflin has 18 tackles and one sack in his Hawkeye debut, normally starting alongside Daviyon Nixon, who commands the most attention of opposing blockers. Heflin didn’t start against Nebraska, though. He came down with a cold last week and missed a couple of practices. Noah Shannon got the start in his place, although Heflin did play.

Heflin took that in stride, which is his custom. Coaches and players alike praise him for his amiability.

“It was the right thing to do,” Heflin said. “Noah earned it.”

The challenge Saturday is one every defensive tackle embraces. Illinois has a veteran offensive line and is averaging 222 rushing yards per game. Last year, the Illini hung with the Hawkeyes thanks to 192 yards on the ground, 76 of them from quarterback Brandon Peters.

Iowa won 19-10. In the previous three matchups, the Hawkeyes had outscored the Illini 136-16. The talent gap between the teams is narrowing. Heflin hopes to slow that process.

“You can tell Peters is a veteran guy. He’s a very good quarterback. He moves. He can throw,” Heflin said. “Their offensive line is very good, very talented, so I’m looking forward to that.

"It’s going to be a fun matchup.”

No. 24 Iowa (4-2) at Illinois (2-3)

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

TV: FS1 (Eric Collins and Ben Leber)

Line: Hawkeyes by 13.5

Weather: 41 degrees and mostly sunny; winds from northeast at 4 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.