Nick Easley looks for encore after sterling Iowa Hawkeyes debut

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nick Easley always dreamed of playing in the Cy-Hawk football game, wearing the black and gold of Iowa.

Yes, he grew up in Newton, a central Iowa town with divided loyalties in the annual rivalry game. Yes, he once made a recruiting visit to Iowa State.

But Easley’s family is Hawkeye through and through, the junior wide receiver told reporters Tuesday. His parents, Allison Lemke and John Easley, are Iowa graduates. Many of his relatives live in Iowa City.

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley pulls in a catch during the Hawkeyes' game against Wyoming at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

“It’s such a big deal in the state of Iowa, the excitement,” Easley said of Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown in Ames (ESPN2). “I certainly remember watching these games. I think everybody in the state watches.”

Easley is about to get his first taste of partaking in the Cy-Hawk action, after a roundabout route to his dream school. First, the 5-foot-11, 203-pounder spent two seasons honing his skills at Iowa Western Community College. As a sophomore, he gained 954 yards there, the second-most in school history. He made that visit to Iowa State and thought about walking on.

Until Iowa came calling with the same offer.

Easley arrived on campus in the spring and immediately got the attention of Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz with his work ethic. By the time summer arrived, he was a surprise No. 1 on the depth chart, beating out scholarship players such as Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young.

The bigger surprise was yet to come. Easley enters Week 2 as the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver, after a four-catch, 77-yard debut performance in Saturday’s 24-3 win over Wyoming.

“I was ready for whatever they were going to throw on my plate,” Easley said after playing 46 of Iowa’s 56 snaps Saturday.

“Obviously, I was anxious going into it. But once I got out there, the nerves kind of settled down and I realized it was just a football game. And I’ve played a bunch of football games before.”

But never one like this.

Easley was targeted four times by first-time starter Nate Stanley. He caught all four. Three of them were in pivotal moments.

  • Midway through the second quarter, Stanley, the Hawkeyes’ sophomore quarterback, still hadn’t completed a pass. The Hawkeyes trailed 3-0. Tailback Akrum Wadley carried four times for 11 yards to pick up a hard-earned first down. Stanley then settled in the pocket and tossed a pass to his right: to a well-covered Easley, who hunched over to clutch the football to his back hip for a 19-yard gain. The pass appeared to be a mistake, underthrown and into traffic. Easley said Tuesday he wasn’t sure. He thought Stanley meant to throw the football to his back hip. “He put it in a good spot for me to make a play,” Easley said. The Hawkeyes went on to score their first touchdown on the drive to take the lead for good.
  • Late in the third quarter, Iowa had yet to convert a third down. Needing five yards to do so from his own 29-yard line, Stanley found Easley along the sideline again, hitting him for 11 yards. Wyoming’s Tyler Hall was assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty to move the ball to the Cowboys’ 45.
  • On the next play, Stanley faked a handoff and then waited for Easley to break free on a crossing route in single coverage. Finally, he lofted a pass that Easley caught on his fingertips, eluding a defender and plunging into the end zone for his first career score and a 21-3 Iowa lead.

Stanley completed only eight passes, half of them to Easley. Easley was so efficient that he was named to the Pro Football Focus all-Big Ten Conference team for Week 1.

“Easley’s a great receiver for us. He’s got good speed. He runs good routes. It was really encouraging what he did during the Wyoming game and we’re thinking for great things from him,” Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant said.

“He always works hard and always does good things in practice, so I fully expected him to come out and have a good game, and he did so. And I was really happy for him.”

Easley wasn’t completely happy. He said Iowa’s receivers have a lot of room for improvement, despite his promising start. Those polish points include running better routes and getting better timing with Stanley.

“He has a real strong arm,” Easley said of his new quarterback. “He’s able to make some throws that other guys couldn’t.”

The work will continue in Iowa’s first road game, against its in-state rival before 60,000-plus fans in Jack Trice Stadium.

For a brief moment, it appeared that Easley might be in a Cyclone uniform for this one. But there’s no hard feelings, he said. He’s spending the week trying to build his rapport with Stanley, not tuning in to the chatter between the fan bases. Easley’s big opening game thrust him squarely into the conversation.

“I try to stay away from that stuff,” Easley said of the social media sparring that takes place this week. “I don’t really read it.”