IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nick Easley came to Iowa this spring as another try-hard, walk-on receiver with eyes on competing and an uphill battle for playing time.
Instead, Easley became the Hawkeyes’ surprise of the spring. With top receiver Matt VandeBerg out after surgery on his left foot and starter Jerminic Smith withheld from practice because of academics, Easley had a chance to earn first-team snaps, and he performed better than any of Iowa’s holdovers.
“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. “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 them done, and I mean that 24 hours a day.”
Easley’s ascension should hardly surprise, considering his production last year at Iowa Western Community College. He led all junior-college programs in catches (72), ranked fifth nationally in yards (954) and was 13th in yards per game (79.5). He led the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference in all of those categories along with all-purpose yardage (91.9). He was named a first-team All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association following the season.
Despite the accolades, Easley didn’t have many suitors. FCS schools Western Illinois, Southern Illinois and Indiana State offered him a scholarship; in-state programs Iowa State and Iowa provided him with walk-on opportunities. Initially he chose the Cyclones, but he flipped to the Hawkeyes before the spring semester.
“It was more so me wanting to go to Iowa,” Easley said. “Both of my parents graduated from here. I always wanted to play here when I was a kid. I came to Hawk games, watched the games on TV. It was kind of something that if I wouldn’t have done it, I think I would have always regretted it.
“They got a hold of me and said there’s a really good opportunity for me here. Nothing was promised or anything.”
Easley grew up in Newton, located about halfway between Iowa City and Des Moines along I-80. He sparkled his final two high school seasons with a combined 70 catches for 1,134 yards and 16 receiving touchdowns. Instead of settling for a lower-division school, Easley chose to play at Iowa Western. He played two seasons for the Reivers.
Since joining the Hawkeyes, Easley has thrived with the team’s strength and conditioning staff. He added strength, gained a few pounds and is listed at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds. But he gained more explosiveness. His vertical jump this spring is 39.5 inches, which would have tied for seventh among all performers at the NFL scouting combine in March.
“I was a little bit surprised with how much better they got,” Easley said of his numbers. “I was only here for eight or nine weeks, and they got drastically better. I think that’s just a testament to [strength coach Chris] Doyle and the training staff and the nutrition that we have here that I didn’t have access to in the past that really helped me.”
Easley’s work ethic in the weight room spilled over to the field in spring practice. With only two scholarship players running routes, Easley impressed new receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who came aboard in February.
“He surprised me before we got on the field,” Copeland said. “He caught my eye. When we got on the field, that translated over. His attention to detail translated over into his play. If you were out in practice, wherever the last time you were out at practice, you would have seen that result in production. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter what you’ve done in the past, like I said, we’ve all got a clean slate here and it’s about producing, including myself. We have to produce.”
Iowa’s passing game struggled last year, and Easley will face fierce competition for action this summer and in training camp. VandeBerg should return, and Smith could come back after the spring semester ends this week. Iowa has four incoming freshmen wide receivers who also have an opportunity to play right away. But the competition just seems to harden Easley’s resolve to make an impact.
“I feel like I’ve always been an underdog, so to say,” he said. “It’s something I’m used to.”