IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz sent the Nick Easley hype train in motion at his first press conference this spring. Iowa’s head coach lauded the walk-on receiver for attacking offseason training with gusto. The comments arrived unsolicited.
As someone who’s covered Ferentz since he took over the program in 1999, his endorsement of Easley interested me. The coach never has been about hyperbole and he hasn’t talked up a player unless it’s earned. A lot of his compliments have come after a player as worked his way through the program and reached the upperclassman stage.
Still, I chalked it up to him patting on the back a hard-working kid that hit the ground running during a very crucial phase of the year. The coaches hadn’t even seen him take a rep on the field. Perhaps it was part motivational tactic for group of guys at a very thin position.
While there might be some truth that reasoning, if you haven’t already, it’s time to embrace Easley (5-11, 203) as a key member of the receiving corps. With projected starters Matt VandeBerg (injury) and Jerminic Smith sidelined this spring, the junior from Newton High by way of Iowa Western Community College is the leading man.
“If you put a gun to my head today, I would tell you our best receiver out there day-in and day-out at practice, obviously we know what Matt VandeBerg can do, but Nick Easley has done a nice job,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Wednesday here at the football performance center. “He’s not on scholarship, but he’ll play, and he’ll play more than maybe he even anticipated. Because we’re looking for the guys that can go out there and do things the way we want done, and I mean that 24 hours a day.”
That sure sounds like a ringing endorsement. But wait, there’s more…
“He surprised me before we got on the field. He caught my eye,” first-year receivers coach Kelton Copeland said last week. “When we got on the field, that translated over. His attention to detail translated over into his play. And that’s what it’s all about.
“Nick is one of those guys that’s producing at a steady rate, and he’s getting better by the day. So he’s definitely done some things in my eyes that’s going to put him in the conversation.”
So, that’s the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the position coach handing out high praise. It’s time to pay attention.
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Easley spoke with the Iowa media for the first time on Wednesday. It didn’t take long to realize he fit snuggly into the football culture here.
Reporters tried to nudge Easley into hyping himself. Not a chance. His humility matched up with the hard-working reputation he received from the coaches.
“I’ve just been trying to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “Every rep I get, I just try to treat it like the only one I may get.”
Colleges weren’t lining up for Easley when he came out of Newton High. Even after an all-American fall at Iowa Western that saw him roll up 954 receiving yards, the FBS schools held back. Western Illinois, Southern Illinois and Indiana State offered scholarships. He picked walking on at Iowa instead.
“It was kind of an easy choice for me, honestly, growing up a huge Hawkeye fan. Both of my parents (Allison Lemke and John Easley) are graduates of the U of I,” he said.
It’s also another opportunity for Easley to prove people wrong.
“I don’t really focus too much on (being the underdog). I feel like it’s something that’s always been there. So, I’ve thrived with it in the past and I want to continue to do the same,” Easley said.
Easley, generously listed as 5-11, has been working in the slot and on the outside this spring. He credited VandeBerg and other veteran receivers with helping him transition to the higher level of football.
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Hawkeye junior walk-on knows his role and plays it well.
“Things are starting to settle in for me. We’re still adding new stuff every day, but I definitely feel like I’m getting more comfortable with it,” he said.
Asked if their were any receivers he tries to emulate, Easley mentioned the Miami Dolphins Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots.
“I like watching guys like that who are tough dudes who run really good routes and catch the ball really competitively,” he said.
That description sounds a lot like what the Iowa coaches require from all of their players, regardless of position. It comes down to hard work, attention to detail and being tough.
Easley will be on display Friday night for the first time publicly in Kinnick Stadium when the Hawkeyes play their spring game. A lot of eyes should be on No. 84. He’s not just a spring comet flashing through the sky only to burn out and never to be seen again. This guy is firmly in the plans at a position of need.