Hawkeyes' WR shortage finds help from junior-college trio

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Even if there’s not a “Help Wanted” poster taped to the door of the wide receivers' room at the Iowa Football Performance Center, the candidate search currently underway is well known.

And the best way for applicants to get their foot in the door at the University of Iowa?

Thrive in Chris Doyle’s weight room.

That's an area that Ronald Nash, Dominique Dafney and Nick Easley — three walk-on Hawkeye receivers from Iowa Western Community College, in Council Bluffs — have a built-in (or, should we say, built-up?) advantage. All three arrived in Iowa City with a physical edge.

“I knew all three of those guys would make it there,” said Scott Strohmeier, who coached all three players at Iowa Western, “because they love to lift. And when they’re in there, they bust it.”

With Iowa having just two scholarship options available at wide receiver as spring practice winds down, the door of spring opportunity has swung wide open for all three former Reivers.

Junior Nick Easley (84) is one of three walk-ons from Iowa Western Community College who have become factors in the Hawkeyes' passing game this spring.

A little background on each guy, in order of when they arrived in Iowa City:

Ronald Nash (6-2, 210)

With Matt VandeBerg (foot injury) and Jerminic Smith (academics) out for the spring, Nash is the only Hawkeye wideout to have a catch at the FBS level. He had two of them last fall for 14 yards while working his way onto the depth chart.

Now entering his third year in the program, the Sioux City East product actually is one of Iowa’s most seasoned options. He can play out wide or from the slot.

“Really good student, great kid, worked his tail off when he was here,” Strohmeier said. “I’m not surprised that, even though he was a walk-on, that he put himself into the rotation (in 2016).”

Dominique Dafney (6-2, 225)

A redshirt sophomore, Dafney turned heads with some nice grabs over the middle during Iowa’s April 7 open practice at Valley Stadium — where he excelled as a prep for West Des Moines Valley.

“Really strong in the weight room,” Strohmeier said. “We even talked about him being a linebacker at one point, just because of how physical he was.”

Dafney played sparingly as an Iowa Western freshman, stuck behind the likes of Taj Williams, the top junior-college wideout in 2015 who went on to start for TCU last season. Iowa puts a premium on run-blocking from the receiver position. That could provide Dafney's clearest path to the field.

“He's a guy that takes coaching very well. He tries to do exactly what you want him to do — sometimes to a fault,” new Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland said. “… He’s a guy we need to look for in the future because if he keeps progressing, it's going to be hard to keep him off the field — no doubt.”

Nick Easley (5-11, 203)

Of the Iowa Western trio, the Newton native has gotten the most press this spring after his surprising elevation to the depth chart shortly after his January arrival.

Easley didn’t play much as a freshman but thrived as a sophomore as a slot receiver in Strohmeier’s spread offense. Easley was a first-team all-American with 72 receptions for 954 yards. A strong spring in the weight room plus on-field awareness led to his freshman-to-sophomore jump.

“He was such a good route-runner, and he caught the ball,” Strohmeier said. “Probably the biggest thing that he lacked … is breakaway speed. He had some huge plays, though, for us.”

Easley quickly turned heads in Doyle’s weight room; Copeland said that translated onto the field. He is a student of the game.

“He's a guy that really opened my eyes,” Copeland said. “… He does a great job of being very attentive. He gives you his eyes. He's a very "Yes sir," "No sir" -type person. He asks great questions in the meeting room.”

That’s something that doesn’t surprise Strohmeier about any of his three Iowa Western alums. All were exemplary in handling their academics there.

Meanwhile, they pushed to break each other’s weight-room records. Last year, Easley tied Nash for the program’s best vertical jump by a receiver (38 inches) and topped Nash's power clean record of 305 pounds with a lift of 325.

But perhaps most notably — and why these guys shouldn’t be forgotten in Iowa’s receiver group — is the way they’re taught to run routes.

Take Easley, for example. Instead of just running to open space, he learned how to time it with an understanding of the quarterback’s progressions. If he was supposed to cut inside a linebacker, he was taught to find that space at the precise time the quarterback would be looking his way.

“He just understood the concepts of what we were trying to do,” Strohmeier said, “who we were trying to read.”

Ask a plugged-in Hawkeye observer a year ago, and he or she will affirm that receivers getting open was one of the team's weak points.

It’s no secret Iowa’s receivers struggled to get open a year ago. As a partial byproduct, receivers coach Bobby Kennedy wasn't retained.

Early indications are this Iowa Western trio and the new receivers coach are taking steps to help fix that.

"These guys have a lot of ability," Copeland said of his receivers. "Whether it's route running, catching the ball, route definition... things like that... You hit it on the head. It's how I'm coaching."

Iowa's Spring Game

When, where: 7:06 p.m. Friday, Kinnick Stadium

Television: Live on BTN2GO; tape-delayed at 8:30 p.m., BTN (Announcers: John Campbell, Chuck Long, Danan Hughes)

Admission, parking: Free (Lots open at 5 p.m.; gates open at 6 p.m.); only the West stands will be open.

Forecast: Temperatures in the high-40s/low-50s; no rain.