IOWA CITY — He led Iowa in rushing last season, but in a crowded competition for snaps at running back Mekhi Sargent doesn’t take anything for granted.
"I always look at myself as the underdog," Sargent said. "I always feel like I have something to prove."
He hopes he’s not alone.
"I would hope that all of the backs feel that way, keep pushing, keep working, and I feel like that’s probably the case," Sargent said.
Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin return this season, and the decision to enroll early has allowed Shadrick Byrd fit in to the mix.
Sargent said Iowa’s other freshman, Tyler Goodson, has made a favorable early impression since arriving on campus earlier this month.
"They’re all competitors, and that’s a good thing," Sargent said. "We’re going to earn what we get."
That comes naturally for Sargent, whose football journey began in his hometown of Key West, Florida, and led to Iowa Western Community College before he found his way to Iowa.
As nice as the tropical weather may be in Key West, it’s an outpost when it comes to attracting college football recruiters.
Iowa Western was the one college program at any level that offered Sargent an opportunity.
He packed his bags and took it, ready to go to work.
"That’s who I am. I always feel like I have to prove myself, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen," Sargent said.
That’s nothing new for Sargent.
He worked a variety of jobs as a middle school and high school student, trying to earn money for clothes and shoes he knew his mother, Yolanda Gardner, could not afford.
From harvesting mangos and limes to sell — a job that included climbing trees — to painting fences and working light construction jobs for his best friend’s grandfather, Sargent was willing.
He mowed grass and raked rocks and sand for the city of Key West one summer and spent time working behind the counter at a Dunkin’ Donuts.
"I’ve never been afraid of hard work," Sargent said. "I feel like that helps me every day now."
It certainly put him in a position to thrive on the field and allowed him to push past any doubts that cropped up along the way.
More than a thousand miles away from home and redshirting as a true freshman at Iowa Western, there were days when the 5-foot-10, 212-pound Sargent wondered if everything would work out.
"There were days when I would think ‘Is this game really for me?’ or wonder if because I had been asked to redshirt if I had the ability to play," Sargent said. "I spent a lot of time that first year thinking."
He spent a lot of time the following year piling up yardage.
Sargent rushed for 1,449 yards as a redshirt freshman at Iowa Western, numbers and skill that caught the attention of Iowa recruiters.
"They kept talking with me, but I wasn’t sure if they wanted me then or if they were thinking a year down the road," Sargent said.
A year ago this month, he received the offer that led him to join the competition with Young and Kelly-Martin last summer.
He worked his way onto the field, a byproduct of injuries and his own effort.
Led by a 173-yard effort in Iowa’s regular-season finale against Nebraska, Sargent eventually rushed for 745 yards last season as a sophomore.
He expected more.
"It should have been 1,000," Sargent said. "That was the first time since my freshman year of high school I didn’t run for 1,000 yards. That’s what good backs do."
That has provided offseason motivation.
He likes the growth he has seen in strength and conditioning areas, earning "Golden Hawk" status for reaching objectives under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and his staff.
"I’m trying to become the best version of myself that I can be," Sargent said.
That’s where Sargent finds himself now, motivated to "get back to normal" and reach that plateau again, understanding that competition remains plentiful and he’ll have to earn his opportunities one carry at a time.
"I have to prove myself all over again. That’s the way it works. I feel like I earned the trust of the coaches late in the season a year ago, but everybody is healthy again now and I’m still out there working and doing what it takes to earn my chance all over again," Sargent said.
He’s fine with that.
"I’ve been the underdog all my life, and the only thing I know how to do is to keep working and eventually everything will work out," Sargent said. "It’s never easy, but it never has been, and I don’t think I would know how to deal with it any other way."