In some ways, Mekhi Sergant’s early NFL experience is nothing new.
As an undrafted rookie, the running back out of Iowa does not exactly have a clear path to a roster spot. Particularly not on a team that has two-time rushing champion Derrick Henry, a 2020 third-round draft pick (Darrynton Evans) and two others who are proven backups (Jeremy McNichols, Brian Hill). It is similar to his high school days at Key West, Fla., where virtually no college recruiters went in search of talent.
In two preseason games, though, a player who never has been discouraged by being overlooked has garnered a lot of attention.
In the Tennessee Titans’ 34-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, he had a game-high 78 rushing yards on 16 carries. His first carry, one minute into the second quarter, went for 15 yards and immediately made him the contest’s leading rusher. He also started the scoring with a five-yard reception on fourth-and-1 in the final minute of the first quarter.
“I’ve been confident since I was a kid when I threw on football pads,” Sargent said days before that performance. “Coming from Key West was not easy at all, but I feel like confidence is key.
“… If I had been drafted, I would have been happy. Elated. But then again, I did not get drafted. I knew I had to work.”
With a little more than a week remaining before NFL rosters are reduced to their regular-season limits, Sargent has rushed for 136 yards on 32 carries, which makes him one of the league’s leading rushers at this point of the preseason. The rest of the Titans have combined for 89 rushing yards. He also has two receptions for 11 yards and the touchdown.
Perhaps just as important – if not more so – is the fact that he has made a special teams tackle in each of the first two games.
“I’m a hard worker,” Sargent said. “I’m going to go out and do the dirty work and do anything that needs to be done. I’m a team-first player, and I’m just looking to find my role.”
At least he knows people are looking at him. That has not always been the case.
Despite a standout career at Key West High School, he said the only serious interest he received from an FBS program came from Marshall during his junior year. Sargent’s aim was higher, so he spent two years (one of them a redshirt year) at Iowa Western Community College, which finally led him to Iowa.
“Just being from Key West is difficult,” he said. “Just being recruited … we didn’t have a lot of people come down there and recruit. So, I just went to community college. Not that I didn’t have the grades but because it was another opportunity, and I made the most of it.”
Life as an undrafted rookie is the NFL’s version of junior college. You have to prove yourself in ways that others might not.
Sargent said he signed with the Titans because they were the first team to call after the draft and offer a contract. Never one to pass on an opportunity, he quickly accepted.
Then, in the team’s rookie minicamp he made a memorable first impression.
“(Sargent) goes hard,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “He went so hard the first day to the point of exhaustion. He was cramping up and everything else, so we lost him for a couple days. We told him, ‘Go hard but you don’t have to go that hard. You are the only running back that was here.’”
Now, he is one of several at the position and it is certain that not all of them will make the 53-man roster. His chances still remain slim, but Sargent insists he is not concerned with what might happen. After all, if this opportunity does not work out, he will do what he must to earn another – just as he always has.
“I worry about improvement,” he said. “I’m improvement-driven, just trying to get better every day at the little things. … I just take it one day at a time. I might get good feedback one day, bad feedback in the same day. I just try to improve as a player overall and just try to carve my role out.”
Eventually, someone will notice.