Iowa’s attempt to establish dominance in the running game has been something of an adventure throughout the 2018 season. Despite losing one of the most dynamic and versatile running backs in program history in Akrum Wadley, Iowa’s run-heavy offense remains embedded in the program’s DNA, leaving no doubt that the running game would remain a critical component of the Hawkeyes’ offensive strategy in 2018. The carries would be there, it was only a question of how they would be distributed.
Hawkeye fans were initially excited by the prospect that two returning sophomore running backs (Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin) could serve as a dynamic one-two punch to help replace Wadley and his capable backup James Butler. Young is a powerful, straight-ahead runner who showed flashes of potential during his freshman campaign, while Kelly-Martin has greater top-end speed and excelled at catching the ball out of the backfield. Neither player was viewed as a complete back, but together, it was thought, they could form a potent thunder-and-lightening combination that could keep defenders on their toes.
Iowa’s season is near its conclusion and, at long last, the Hawkeyes appear to have finally found a leader at running back. Surprisingly, the most complete back on Iowa’s roster is not one of the players initially thought to be a contender for that role but is instead the sophomore transfer from Iowa Western Community College Mekhi Sargent. While Sargent was mostly an unknown after enrolling in Iowa last June and his fanbases’ only real exposure to him came in a brief appearance in season 3 of Netflix’s Last Chance U series, his strong performances against Illinois and Nebraska established him as Iowa’s most versatile and dangerous weapon at running back.
Sargent started the season slowly (he failed to average 4.0 yards per carry against a single FBS opponent until Iowa’s sixth game against Indiana), but posted something of a breakout performance against Penn State in which his hard running style provided a spark to Iowa’s struggling offense:
Sargent posted consecutive 100-yard rushing games against Illinois and Nebraska (the only such games any Iowa running back has had this season), and Sargent’s two-touchdown performance against the Cornhuskers was particularly critical to Iowa’s hard-fought victory. Iowa was 0-11 over the past three years in games in which it failed to reach 100 yards rushing coming into this season, so having a back capable of hitting the century mark on a consistent basis is crucially important to the team’s success. Sargent shows tremendous patience and backfield vision in reading defenses and waiting for his blocks to emerge before turning on the jets, but he is deceptively quick once he can starts running straight:
Kelly-Martin is the fastest running back in Iowa’s regular rotation, but while Sargent may be a step slower, he more than makes up for it with his powerful running style that allows him to break tackles. Sargent’s excellent lower body strength enables him to power through arm tackles and punish defenders who attempt to bring him down from an inopportune angle, as both of these plays against Penn State show:
While Sargent isn’t quite the battering ram that the heavier back Toren Young is, Sargent’s adeptness at breaking tackles is greatly aided by his fantastic backfield vision and his deceptive agility; while he can break a tackle from a defender who engages him straight on, Sargent particularly excels at avoiding these types of hits. Looking at the second clip above, Sargent makes a small, subtle change of direction to avoid the Penn State defender at the line of scrimmage, relies on his acceleration to create poor angles for the next two defenders who attempt to tackle him above the waist, and uses his agility to force the next defender into an arm tackle that, despite eventually bringing him down, allows Sargent to plow ahead for additional yards.
Sargent’s vision and ability to make small, but surprisingly sharp cuts allow him to find open space that his speed alone might not enable him to reach, which led to this excellent touchdown run against Nebraska. Two Cornhusker defenders were in positions that should have enabled them to attempt ta tackle, but Sargent’s vision and cutting ability never gave either of them an opportunity to do so.
Sargent is also a valuable 3rd down back both for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and for his adeptness at blocking. Sargent leads all Iowa running backs in receptions (16) receiving yards (153) and yards-per-catch (9.3) and grew more comfortable as a 3rd down back in Ivory Kelly-Martin’s absence. Sargent is dangerous when he gets the ball in space, and his lone reception against UNI on a swing pass to the flat allowed him to display his speed, agility, and power in what was arguably his best play of the season:
Sargent’s skill as a blocker likely did not come as a shock to Iowa’s coaching staff given his exploits in junior college (Sargent just eviscerates a defender at 1:58), but he has established himself as the most able pass protector among Iowa’s running backs. Sargent threw a key block on this long completion to Brandon Smith against Iowa State, and made a number of similar plays over the course of the season:
Blocking is an underrated skill for a tailback, and Sargent’s talent as both a blocker and a receiver makes him an asset on obvious passing downs. Sargent’s reputation as a good blocker can even create more opportunities for him to make plays catching the ball out of the backfield. On his touchdown reception against Nebraska, Husker defender Dedrick Young hesitates for a moment when it appears that Sargent is moving to block the blitzing outside linebacker. Sargent feints as though he is moving to block the rusher, which freezes Young just long enough to permit Sargent to reach a spot in the flat well outside of Young’s range, allowing Sargent to stroll into the endzone untouched.
While Young and (a healthy) Kelly-Martin are both good running backs in their own right and deserve roles in the Iowa offense, Sargent’s skill set makes him the closest thing the Hawkeyes have to an every-down back. His potent combination of speed, power, vision, and agility make him Iowa’s most versatile ballcarrier, while his skills as a blocker and receiver allow him to function as a third-down back. While Iowa is not likely to make him a true feature back as long as Young and Kelly-Martin remain with the program, fans should certainly anticipate seeing Mekhi Sargent assume a larger role in the offense in the Outback Bowl and beyond.