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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent arrived as a largely unknown junior-college running back in June. He's become a key contributor. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ross Reynolds remembers the initial glimpses and the thoughts that came with them as he watched Mekhi Sargent settle in. Iowa’s new backfield toy made his mark quickly.  

“I remember sitting with (center) Keegan (Render) actually. We were in Kinnick for a practice and it was scorching hot,” Reynolds recalled Saturday. “Mekhi was out there making big plays — big, big plays.

“I remember looking at Keegan and saying, ‘this guy is gonna play.’”

Call it a prophetic assessment.

While most of the preseason hype surrounded Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young as the top Akrum Wadley replacements, it’s been Sargent who’s spearheaded Iowa’s most productive ground showings this season. Friday’s 31-28 win over Nebraska marked Sargent’s second consecutive 100-yard rushing game — the only two such performances the Hawkeyes had in 2018.

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Sargent, largely an outsider to Hawkeye football culture by way of Key West, Florida and Iowa Western Community College, didn’t officially arrive in Iowa City until early June. He entered a running back room that while unproven, had guys in Kelly-Martin and Young who patiently waited for their turn to pounce. Sargent slotted third on the preseason depth chart.

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Yet here he is late in the year, reinvigorating a Hawkeye rushing attack that had been stagnant — certainly by Iowa’s standards — for much of the season. He got going at Illinois for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries, then put it on Nebraska in what was the Hawkeyes’ best rushing performance in two-plus years.

Sargent’s 173 ground yards Friday were the most for an Iowa running back since Wadley went for 176 at Purdue on Oct. 15, 2016.

“It’s been a long journey and a lot of learning,” Sargent said, “and I’m not done learning. All the details, effort, coming out to practice ready. Just got to keep pushing forward even though there’s a lot of learning to do. I’m not there yet, but I’m working for it.

“My confidence has grown tremendously, and I think moving forward, it’s going to keep growing by the way I practice and the way I study the playbook and hang around the running back group and the o-linemen.”

Ask around and you’ll hear universal praise on how Sargent has adjusted to his new collegiate setting. This year hasn’t been without obstacles — hit-and-miss action early in the year, a costly fumble late versus Northwestern — but Sargent's attitude hasn’t budged.

It’s why he’s in this position to thrive late in the year.

“His selfless behavior has been huge,” Render said. “He’s always giving praise to the o-line, even on days when we’re not very good. That just speaks to his character and the kind of guy he is."

Outsiders could see the investment pay off against Nebraska. After already burning the Huskers with a second quarter touchdown run and a third quarter scoring grab, Iowa leaned on Sargent with the game on the line.

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The Hawkeyes needed late juice after Nebraska rallied from 15 down to tie the game with 3:22 to play. They turned to Sargent for five of the first six plays on the ensuing drive, punctuated by a 16-yard run on third-and-1 that pushed Iowa into Husker territory. That helped set the stage for Miguel Recinos’ walk-off winner.

“Mekhi’s a good kid, a really good guy,” said tight end T.J. Hockenson, who took the baton from Sargent with a pivotal fourth-down grab before the game-winning kick. “He does everything right and what’s expected of him. There’s a lot that goes into your character as a back and as an Iowa Hawkeye. You have to have the right character to play here, and he fits the bill right away.”

Reynolds saw those early flashes and Hockenson did too. Now, everyone else sees it.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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