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Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley was once sought-out for his punting skills. Why didn't he pursue that? Hear his story: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nick Easley has nothing against people who earn college scholarships by kicking a football.

He has a pretty strong leg himself.

But Easley was aiming higher coming out of Newton High School in 2015. He had been second team all-state as a wide receiver, after all.

The only college Easley heard from was Missouri Western, a Division II program. They wanted him to walk-on. As a punter.

Easley made the trip down to St. Joseph. He showed the coaches why he was also named third team all-state as a punter. Easley then looked toward another part of the practice field and saw two wide receivers also working out.

Easley turned to his father, John, and said, “I am so much better than those guys.”

Missouri Western lost its punter. Eventually, the Iowa Hawkeyes gained a wide receiver skilled enough to have 95 receptions heading into the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

Easley has made an unlikely journey from overlooked, undersized high schooler to a starter on his favorite childhood team. It started by believing in himself when few others did.

“Taking the path I did, a little different than most people, it means a lot to me,” Easley said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

From soccer star ... to football kicker ... to football receiver

Nick Easley’s football story started on the soccer pitch, where his only brother Matt also excelled. Matt is three years older. Nick had to make up that ground with a fierce competitive drive.

“Nick was slide-tackling in soccer when he was 4 because it was the only way he could get his foot on the ball,” said John Easley, who coached his son in youth leagues.

The leg strength gained in soccer translated to football. The Easleys have a long backyard conducive to seeing how far a child can propel a football in the air. Matt Easley became so good at it that he was able to walk-on at Northern Iowa as a kicker.

Nick became even better, at least as far as distance (Matt had the edge in accuracy). Nick took over kicking and punting duties from his brother at Newton High School. He once recorded seven touchbacks in consecutive games. Kickoffs were his specialty.

He also made himself into a standout receiver. Nick had always been small for his age, but he hit a growth spurt in high school, reaching 5-foot-11, though it wasn't enough to get the attention of college scouts.

Between his sophomore and junior years, Easley and teammate Tyler Wood dedicated themselves to transforming their bodies through weight training. Easley put on 25 pounds to get to 175. Wood is now a defensive back at William Penn.

Easley set all of Newton’s receiving records as a junior. His senior year was even more productive.

And no one seemed to care.

He took a gamble on Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, a place churning out Division I talent by the dozens. Easley’s first year was filled with loneliness and more rejection from big schools. He caught a handful of passes. He told his dad: “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.”

“Nobody really wants to go to junior college,” Matt Easley said.  

“You could tell he was a little bit bummed out that first year out there, but he didn’t say a ton about it. I said, ‘Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Just put your head down and go to work.’”

One big year that, finally, got Iowa's attention

This has never been a problem for Nick Easley. He is quiet. He is diligent. And it started paying off.

He had 954 receiving yards as a sophomore at Iowa Western, becoming a JUCO All-American. FCS schools took notice and started offering scholarships.

Easley had his heart set on a bigger school, though, and was thrilled when Iowa State extended an opportunity as a walk-on. Still, he was a little puzzled that Iowa, the alma mater of his parents, John Easley and Allison Lemke, was holding off.

That changed on Christmas Day 2016. Nick was in Iowa City celebrating with his family when he noticed that the Hawkeyes director of recruiting, Tyler Barnes, had followed him on Twitter. Five minutes later, Barnes sent him a walk-on offer.

“Iowa State would have been great. We would have been Cyclone fans,” John Easley said. “But when that Iowa offer came, it was just amazing to us.”

First game, first touchdown, 'a mountaintop moment'

Easley arrived on campus in January 2017 and immediately impressed the coaches with how hard he worked on the field and in the weight room. By the time spring practices arrived, Easley was already being touted as a potential starter. And that’s what he became.

Easley caught 51 passes for 530 yards and four touchdowns as a Hawkeye junior. In his very first game, in Kinnick Stadium vs. Wyoming, Easley got behind Rico Gafford and hauled in a 45-yard scoring pass. Gafford was recently signed by the Oakland Raiders.

“That was a mountaintop moment,” John Easley said.

Another came high above Kinnick Stadium, where Kaden Kelso was going through a cancer scare at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. Kelso, then 11, is also from Newton. He wanted to meet Easley. The bond those two formed went national. They are still close, occasionally playing each other in Fortnite.

“When you go up there, it just kind of makes you realize — when you’re down on yourself, when you think, ‘Oh, this sucks, this is hard’ — how special your opportunities really are,” Easley said of his frequent visits to UIHC.

'He gets my vote for one of the best I've ever coached'

Easley was the lone senior wide receiver for Iowa this season. His dedication to the team and his guidance of younger players has been irreplaceable, wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said.

“He’s not the most vocal guy, but that’s not what I ask for. I’m looking for a guy that leads by example and holds his teammates accountable. That’s probably what Nick does best,” Copeland said. “He gets my vote for one of the best I’ve ever coached.”

Easley caught 44 passes and scored three touchdowns this fall. He primarily operates out of the slot, where his quick-burst speed makes him difficult to contain. Easley put up a 3.77-second time in the pro agility drill, tying Riley McCarron’s mark for the best in program history. He is eyeing an NFL future.

But first is the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State. Easley would love to get the five catches he needs to hit the century mark. His family will be there, as they have been at every Hawkeye game, marveling at his improbable journey.

“We’d be proud of him if he was sitting on the bench the whole time,” Matt Easley said. “But to see him finally get that opportunity and see what he’s done after it is really incredible.”

And it started with Nick Easley turning his back on a chance to be a punter.

“I just felt like I could do better than that,” he said.

“I think punting is great. I really like our punter (Colten Rastetter). But it’s not for me. I’d rather play receiver.”

And so he has. For two glorious Hawkeye seasons.

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