Leistikow: Where would this year's Iowa football team be without 'godsend' Nick Easley?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The locker next to Akrum Wadley’s inside the Iowa Football Performance Center belongs to Nick Easley.

The Hawkeyes’ leader in touchdowns this fall, next to the guy who’s No. 2.

One was expected to do this. The other certainly wasn’t.

“He’s a great story,” Wadley says. “I love Nick.”

Yes, he is. And the Hawkeye coaches love him, too.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz even calls Easley’s improbable arrival to the program “a godsend.”

And the story began late on Christmas Day.

Nick Easley, left, has 27 receptions for Iowa this season. The rest of Hawkeye wide receivers have a combined 25.

Instead of sleeping the night before the Hawkeye contingent was set to fly to Tampa, Florida, for the Outback Bowl, Iowa director of recruiting Tyler Barnes found himself up late, sifting through junior-college all-American teams.

He came across Easley’s name, and noted he was an Iowan. Knowing the Hawkeyes were desperately seeking wide-receiver help, Barnes took an shot in the (literal) dark by sending Easley a direct message on Twitter at 10:20 p.m.

Easley responded almost immediately.

And the conversation moved quickly from there.

Barnes did some fast homework. He found out Easley’s mom, Alison Lemke, works locally as a speech pathologist and clinical associate professor at the University of Iowa.

He found out Nick grew up a Hawkeye fan. Mom and Dad are Iowa grads.

Matt Easley, a walk-on kicker at Northern Iowa from 2012 to 2016, still remembers the late-night Christmas text from his younger brother.

“I just got a walk-on offer from Iowa.”

For Nick, the surprising news brought instant excitement ... but a dilemma.

A few weeks earlier, after completing a 72-catch season with Iowa Western Community College, Nick had accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity at Iowa State over several FCS scholarship offers.

“He was fairly conflicted, because he was all set to go to Iowa State,” Matt says. “He was ready to be all Cyclone; we were ready to be all-Cyclone for the next couple years. It was a little bit jarring at first. But he thought about it, and he’s like, ‘It’s not the end of the world if I back out of this.’

“It moved quickly.”

Just three days after Iowa's first contact, and on the heels of a call from Tampa from head coach Kirk Ferentz, Easley announced on Twitter that he would be a Hawkeye.

He re-applied at Iowa — he had been accepted there two years earlier, coming out of Newton High School — and within weeks was taking spring-semester classes here.

A weight-room fanatic, Easley (listed at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds) immersed himself into every facet of the Hawkeye program with a walk-on mentality he previously took to Iowa Western.

“He kind of knew what it was like to show up some place where they’ll have you,” Matt says, “but you’re not on scholarship.”

At Iowa, Easley was sold instant opportunity at an extremely thin wide-receiver group.

And he quickly made the most of it.

Brian Ferentz noticed parallels with undersized Riley McCarron, once an Iowa walk-on from Dubuque who became the team’s top pass-catcher in 2016 and is currently earning an NFL paycheck on the New England Patriots practice squad.

“He's a guy who knows what he is and knows what he isn't,” Ferentz says of Easley, “and he knows what he has to do to get on the field. And that is to have a little courage and go to some dark places. And he's done that for us, and he's been extremely reliable.”

Those “dark places” are often over the middle and into heavy secondary traffic just before taking a crunching hit.

And Easley has shown he can make a tough catch.

“A couple plays in the Illinois game, he juked out a guy to get open,” quarterback Nate Stanley says. “… He runs good routes and uses his body well.”

The result is 4.5 receptions per game, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten Conference, and his 27 for the season (for 281 yards) are not only a team high — they're more than the rest of Iowa’s listed wide receivers combined. Matt VandeBerg (15 catches), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (eight) and Brandon Smith (two) have a collective 25.

Easley has a team-best four touchdown receptions (including one against the in-state Division I program he once committed to) — and had a fifth overturned by video review when it was ruled he fumbled just before the goal line against North Texas.

But it’s behind the numbers where Easley’s emergence has been more of a “godsend.”

His rise to the top of the depth chart has taken pressure off VandeBerg, who came into 2017 as Iowa's lone experienced receiver but was coming off multiple offseason foot surgeries.

Easley's steady hands and leadership have helped true freshmen Smith-Marsette, Smith and Max Cooper to develop and gradually become part of a growing receiver rotation.

“When Ihmir was frustrated after a play, he hung his head on the sideline,” says Wadley, whose seven touchdowns are a team high. “I witnessed Nick come talk to him. Then the next play, Ihmir goes out and make a play.”

It’s a neat story, an unlikely path.

No doubt, scholarship money will be coming soon, just as it did at Iowa Western.

For now, though, Iowa’s leading receiver remains a walk-on.

And the Hawkeyes wouldn't have a 4-2 record or a serviceable passing game without him.

Good thing he was checking Twitter on Christmas.

“We didn't find him,” Brian Ferentz says. “We lucked into him.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.