By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nick Easley’s rise as a walk-on receiver for the Iowa football team is spectacular and inspiring in many ways, but not all that unusual.
It is unusual that he came to Iowa from junior college instead of directly out of high school without a scholarship because most of the walk-on receivers who have thrived at Iowa, which is a long and distinguished list, came straight out of high school.
Easley leads Iowa with 27 receptions, 281 receiving yards and four touchdowns heading into Saturday’s game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.
The junior from Newton has emerged as quarterback Nate Stanley’s go-to receiver, a role that many assumed would be filled by senior Matt VandeBerg.
“I remember last spring as I’m looking at the guys on the team, I’m thinking, okay, he’s got potential, he’s got potential, and who is this kid?” former Iowa assistant coach Don Patterson said of Easley, who earned first-team NJCAA All-America honors at Iowa Western Community College last season. “But even in the spring it was obvious this kid has real good hands and he seems to have a great work ethic, which is important because you don’t improve unless you’re working hard. And obviously, he’s learned the offense and he’s motivated.”
If anybody knows a thing or two about walk-on receivers at Iowa, it’s the 66-year old Patterson. He spent 37 seasons as a collage coach, including being a member of Hayden Fry’s staff for all 20 of Fry’s seasons at Iowa from 1979 to 1998.
Most of the walk-on receivers who have been successful at Iowa had several things in common, including being from Iowa.
“Those in-state players have a little bit extra motivation to represent Iowa because they grew up for sure following the Iowa Hawkeyes and it means a lot to them,” Patterson said. “They’re not going to be lacking for motivation in part because, I can’t speak for all of them, but in so many cases, they would tell you that’s the one school I always hoped to be able to play for.”
Kevin Kasper, who led Iowa with a school-record 82 receptions for 1,010 receiving yards as a walk-on receiver in 2000, is one of the few exceptions as an Illinois native.
Fry still was the head coach with Patterson serving as his offensive coordinator when Kasper came to Iowa in the late 1990s. However, Fry retired after the 1998 season and was replaced by Kirk Ferentz. Kasper then played his final two seasons in 1999 and 2000 under Ferentz.
Fry and Patterson helped pave the way for Kasper, and then Ferentz and Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle took it from there.
The combination of Kasper’s worth ethic and under-rated athleticism combined with Doyle’s supervision and knowledge helped to create a star.
Kasper is Iowa’s sixth all-time leading receiver with 1,974 yards and he played in the NFL from 2001-08 after being selected by the Denver Broncos in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL draft.
Kasper was clocked at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and had a 43.5 vertical jump.
“Kevin had a lot of talent coming out of high school, but Kevin really improved his speed and quickness at Iowa,” Patterson said. “And you’ve got to give Chris Doyle some credit for that. You’ve got to give two people credit; that would be Kasper and Doyle.”
Doyle also deserves credit for Riley McCarron’s transformation at Iowa.
McCarron was a star quarterback and running back at Dubuque Wahlert who then blossomed as an undersized walk-on receiver at Iowa. He led the team with 517 receiving yards last season and is now a member of the New England Patriots practice squad.
This could be the second consecutive season in which a walk-on receiver from Iowa has led the Hawkeyes in receiving yards.
Almost a Cyclone
Easley was close to being a Cyclone instead of a Hawkeye, but he changed courses quickly after Iowa contacted him late in the recruiting process. Easley had recently accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity from Iowa State, but switched to Iowa after being offered the same opportunity.
Easley grew up as an Iowa fan and the Hawkeyes desperately needed help at receiver.
It was just too good of an opportunity for the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Easley to pass up.
And now both sides are benefitting from each other.
“We didn't find him. We lucked into him,” said Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. “He's a guy we called on Christmas and said, hey, would you be interested in walking on. I believe he was walking on at Iowa State. It was obviously a position of need, we were scouring some things.”
In addition to Kasper and McCarron, some other walk-on receivers who have flourished at Iowa include Scott Helverson, Jim Mauro, Deven Harberts and Jon Filloon.
Mauro led the 1986 squad with 600 receiving yards, while Harberts had 53 catches for 880 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 1988.
As for Filloon, he never led the team in receiving yards, but was a valuable and a dependable weapon.
“Jon Filloon is one the best route runners this school has ever had,” Patterson said of the Manson native.
Only so many scholarships
College football teams have to rely on walk-ons to help offset scholarship limitations, especially now with scholarships limited to 85 per team at the FBS level.
“It’s just hard to find enough good players,” said Patterson, who also was the head coach at Western Illinois. “And one way to expand that pace a little bit, though, is to be really, really diligent in evaluating kids as potential walk-ons, and actually recruiting him as a walk-on. Nothing says you can’t bring a kid in on an official visit to invite him to be part of the team without a scholarship.
“And Kevin Kasper is a prime example. I remember thinking, I can’t believe this kid hasn’t been offered by people because he’s a better player than that. And we’re out of scholarships, but if we can get him as a walk-on that would be a steal. And it was a steal. Kevin proved that. My gosh, he’s one of the most decorated receivers in school history.”
Patterson was reluctant to bring up another thing shared by most of the walk-on receivers at Iowa, which is skin color. Almost all of them have been white.
“That could be a volatile subject, I guess,” Patterson said. “But the truth of it is, I think most of the recruiters are more than likely to question whether or not a white receiver can play than a black receiver. That’s not like a terrible thing to say. It’s that stereotype that (white receivers) are smart, but they’re slow.
“And some of them aren’t that slow to begin with. And all of those kids (at Iowa) share one thing in common; they all had really good hands. They could all catch the ball really well. They were good route runners.”
Patterson was only being truthful. And he should know because he spent decades recruiting receivers and was guilty at times of feeding the very stereotype that he just described.
Coaches have to be selective when offering scholarships, and it’s the same with preferred walk-ons. They don’t just show up for practice asking for an opportunity.
A walk-on candidate is subjected to a screening process in which the coaches decide whether he deserves an opportunity.
“People forget, you’ve only got so many lockers in that locker room,” Patterson said. “And, yeah, there’s a debate about who gets to be invited in to join the team even.”
The debate already was being waged when Patterson joined Fry's staff at North Texas in 1978.
“The truth of it is, even at North Texas we had walk-on receivers that excelled,” Patterson said. “Hayden was comfortable with the possibility and he just had a lot of faith in his ability and our ability to judge players.”