Easley fulfills Hawkeye football dream

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The Daily Iowan; Photos by Josep

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley catches a touchdown pass during an NCAA football game between Iowa and Wyoming in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated Wyoming, 24-3. (Joseph Cress/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa Western transfer Nick Easley is fitting in just fine at Iowa.

By Pete Ruden | [email protected]

Nick Easley always wanted to be a Hawkeye.

With his mother getting a master’s and his father getting a bachelor’s from Iowa, it seemed as if Easley was destined to don the Tigerhawk.

“We’ve always been a Hawkeye family, so that’s the team that Nick grew up admiring and being a big fan of,” said Easley’s mother, Alison Lemke.

It’s been a long road filled with detours for Easley, who made his way onto the Iowa roster this year as a preferred walk-on.

Through two weeks, he has proven to be just what the Hawkeyes needed at a position where inexperience reigned — a shifty and sure-handed receiver who adds a much-needed option in the passing game.

Hawkeye pride showed itself in him at a young age, and it was surprising when Easley didn’t have any Division-1 offers after an All-State year at Newton High.

Even after racking up 36 receptions for 617 yards and 7 touchdowns, which propelled him to the top of many Newton receiving records, the big programs didn’t come.

A multifaceted athlete, Easley even took over on kicking and punting duties in high school, knocking through 5-of-8 field goals and 34-of-37 PATs.

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Still, he only had interest from Division-3 schools and schools such as NAIA Grand View, while Missouri Western recruited him as a kicker and punter.

Instead of folding and closing the book on his football career, Easley decided to prove himself at junior-college powerhouse Iowa Western.

Even though it wasn’t Division-1, the players Easley went up against every day in practice and games weren’t slouches.

The Reivers won the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championship in 2013 and had some of the most highly sought after recruits in the country.

The 2015 Iowa Western squad had 22 players go onto the Division-1 level,m while the 2016 team had 18.

When he got onto the field, Easley’s results were astounding. He racked up 954 yards on 72 catches to go along with 7 touchdowns in his sophomore season. His play earned him first-team All-American honors.

After two juco seasons, the interest that couldn’t seem to find Easley finally started coming.

He earned scholarship offers to FCS schools such as Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, Robert Morris, and Indiana State.

Along with those came a preferred walk-on offer from Iowa State. Easley’s Division-1 dream was finally within reach, as he accepted the offer to play for the Cyclones in early December 2016.

Newton is only about an hour from Ames, so it seemed as if everything had fallen into place.

But it all changed later that month when Easley received a preferred walk-on offer from his childhood favorite team in Iowa City.

Iowa had a need at receiver, too.

Its leading receiver, Riley McCarron, had gone on to the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Jerminic Smith, who seemed at one point to be the future of the receiving group, parted ways with the program after serving a suspension in the spring.

That left only one wideout on the roster who had caught a pass as a Hawkeye before the season started. Easley flipped his commitment to Iowa soon after Christmas, and he hasn’t looked back.

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“Really, just a great opportunity here,” Easley said. “I’ve always wanted to be an Iowa Hawkeye, and I really just want to be a part of this program.”

Easley’s father remembers one conversation that makes the story feel like a movie straight out of Hollywood.

“At one point I asked Nick, ‘If you could play for any college football team in the whole country, what team would you want to play for?’ ” John Easley said. “He said the Hawkeyes. Over ’Bama, over Texas, over Notre Dame, he would’ve chosen to be a Hawkeye.

“Best Christmas present ever.”

Still, not everything was easy.

Easley relocated to a new city and a new school mid-year, and along with that came a learning curve.

There’s a big difference between Council Bluffs and Iowa City, but if one were to look at Easley on a football field, they probably couldn’t tell that he was engulfed in a new way of life.

Coaches could tell from early on in his journey as a Hawkeye that Easley had potential.

In a room that added nine new faces since December, Easley had to stand out, and he did just that with his play and his enthusiasm.

“He does a tremendous job of taking the coaching. Literally, he’s a sponge. He’s a really good football player. He’s savvy, he understands the position of playing wide receiver,” wide receiver coach Kelton Copeland said. “And he loves football. You just watch him and his body language, his demeanor, when he’s around a football field, whether it’s hot, cold, it doesn’t matter. He’s always on the hop, bouncing around, smile on his face, and that’s what’s going to make him a really productive football player.”

His teammates noticed, too.

Iowa has had plenty of good receivers in its time, and plenty of names come to mind when the floodgates open.

Tim Dwight, Marvin McNutt, Kevonte Martin-Manley, and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos are easy to remember, along with Tevaun Smith in recent years.

The Iowa secondary has gone up against a ton of wide receivers, both during games and in practice. For starting cornerback Joshua Jackson, Easley stands near the top in terms of toughest to guard.

“I think just because he’s really shifty,” Jackson said. “He brings different releases off the field. He’s fun to guard; I like guarding him. We compete every day, and just being in his face, trying to go get some is really fun.”

Easley’s talent has not only shown on the practice field but during games as well.

Through two games this season, he has posed a legitimate slot threat to opposing defenses and leads the Hawkeyes in receptions (11) and receiving yards (125). He is tied for the team lead with 2 touchdown catches as well.

His début against Wyoming gave fans a glimpse of what he could do: He recorded a team-high 77 yards and scored his first touchdown at Iowa.

RELATED: Iowa wins first game of season, tops Wyoming, 24-3

That touchdown, specifically, represented something special for Easley and his family.

After a long journey, it showed he could compete at the highest level that college football has to offer.

“I was just tickled that he got the chance to show what he could do, because he’s been doing that since high school,” John Easley said. “He set about every receiving record at Newton High School and some at Iowa Western, but to get into the game and to be able to score, that was spectacular.”

The younger Easley came back the next week against Iowa State with another solid game in his first ever Cy-Hawk battle.

He once again led Iowa in receptions, making 7 catches for 48 yards. And just like his Division-1 début, Easley hit pay dirt on a 10-yard pass from quarterback Nate Stanley to give the Hawkeyes their first points of the game.

After two good performances, Easley has made his name known to Hawkeye fans across the state.

With all the success he has had in just two weeks, it would be very easy for him to look to the future.

That raises a question: What’s next for Easley?

“I think we’re just going to take that one weekend and one game at a time, and that’s what we advised Nick to do, as well,” Lemke said. “[Wyoming] was his first start, and it turned out well, but he has a lot of games ahead of him and some really tough opponents. He knows that he just has to keep on working as hard now as he has in the past.”

The success is coming. All of the work that Easley put in in high school, in junior college, and now at the Division-1 level is finally getting recognized.

It hasn’t been an easy path, but Easley is living out his Black and Gold dream.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “It’s been ups and downs, but my family’s been really supportive along the way. I found myself in a really good spot with a really good opportunity here, so I’m definitely loving it.”

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