IOWA CITY — Ephraim, Utah, is plopped in the sand and brush of central Utah. Cell reception might be iffy with the Manti-La Sal National Forest just east of the town with 6,146 residents, which makes it the largest city in Sanpete County.
On Memorial Day, Ephraim plays host to a Scandinavian Festival that is highlighted by an appearance from the BYU International Folk Dancers.
That’s enough about Ephraim.
“Ephraim is a very small town,” said Clay Bayard, co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks and wide receivers coach for Snow College, a junior college located in Ephraim. “We are middle-of-nowhere Utah. When the students aren’t here, there’s not much to do.”
Damond Powell needed Ephraim. The Iowa wide receiver from Toledo, Ohio, needed middle-of-nowhere to get somewhere. That somewhere happened to be Iowa City.
Where Powell has been going since he arrived is the end zone.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked on his radio show this week if he’s ever had a player average 51.5 yards a catch five games into the season. The answer was, of course, no, but that changed last week. Powell has four catches for 206 yards (a 51.5 average) and two TDs. Against Minnesota last week, he took a 2-yard tunnel screen and screamed 74 yards untouched for a touchdown.
“That felt good,” Powell said with a laugh. “Playing against a good team and getting an opening like that, open field, just taking it and running.”
A bigger laugh and smile come out of Powell.
“Getting to score, that felt really good,” Powell said. “If I didn’t get hit earlier in the play, I knew it was going to be six.”
Later last Saturday evening, Rick Rios, Powell’s coach at Rogers High School in Toledo, sent him a text and reminded him about something they talked about when Powell was a sophomore running that very tunnel screen for TDs around Toledo.
“He came off the field and said he was a little bit nervous, the big guys were trying to hit him,” said Rios, who’s now an assistant coach at Canton (Ohio) McKinley High School. “I pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey Damond, we’re going to throw you a screen, you run fast, run to the back of the end zone and hand the ball to the official and I promise no one will hit you.’
“I sent him a text this weekend to remind him about that. He said, ‘Coach, I remembered everything you said.’”
To get into position to run the tunnel screen for Iowa at Minnesota, the Toledo native needed two years in Ephraim. Coming out of Rogers, Powell had the grades but needed a better ACT/SAT test score.
“He was always bouncing off the walls,” Rios said. “He had great energy, always had a smile on his face. Grade-wise, he was a good student, but he scored low on the ACT. I would attribute that to . . . I don’t think the young man could sit still in a room for four hours.”
Powell, who averaged 22.5 points and led Rogers to the state final four, also was named the Division II basketball player of the year in Ohio in 2011 (co-MVP in Division I was former Michigan star Trey Burke). He picked football because the juco route was a straighter shot to major colleges.
His best offer was Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim. OK, the junior college in Ephraim.
He had football stuff to learn. In high school, the play Powell had to learn was getting the ball, Rios said. It was all wide receiver screens, lots of jet sweeps and some wildcat quarterback. At Snow, for the first time, he was a receiver in an offense. He had to make reads and be in certain places on the field at certain times.
“It took him awhile to get up to speed,” Bayard said. “We would tell him to run a square out and he was so fast and he wouldn’t really hit the square and so he’d be at the sideline two seconds before he was supposed to be there.”
Those big-play numbers he’s put up for the Hawkeyes so far? He had two seasons of that at Snow. As a freshman, he averaged 20.89 yards on 29 catches. Last season, he led national junior colleges with 30.0 yards on 41 receptions.
“He is the home run kid,” Bayard said. “He is absolutely the home run kid.”
Iowa is finding this out.
The first pass thrown to Powell went for 49 yards. He didn’t catch another until two games later, when he had two catches for 83 yards and a 29-yard TD against Western Michigan. Then, last week’s cannon shot.
“It’s taken time to understand what kind of player he is,” Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock said. “He’s very passionate, obviously he can run. You have to understand that each person is different. That’s something I try to understand with all my guys on offense. . . . Getting on the same cue as him, it’s always evolving. It has to.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s practiced answer for the “why not more Powell in the offense” question has always been quick to praise Powell for what he has been able to pick up. Remember, he needed to finish classes at Snow through the summer and didn’t show up in Iowa City until a few days before camp started on Aug. 4.
“Probably haven’t given him enough based on the statistics, but it’s a process,” Ferentz said. “We all knew he was fast, that’s one thing we all feel good about. I think he’s gaining confidence with every week and learning. He’s doing a good job at practice and that’s the most important thing. You start climbing the ladder by what you do during the week.”
The speed thing, you saw it last week. Iowa hasn’t had a player capable of going 74 yards untouched since maybe the early 2000s. Powell was regularly clocked with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash during his days at Rogers. At Snow, he was timed in 4.34, which would tie him with former defensive back Willie Lowe for the fastest 40 in the Ferentz era.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, the guy can really run.’ That’s a good thing,” first-year wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said upon first viewing Powell’s recruiting video. “You’re not sitting there going, ‘How fast is he?’ If you’re fast, you’re fast. That’s been a nice development on the Iowa football front.”
The big-play ability has been a theme for Powell, who also had an offer from Ohio coming out of Snow, and so has the energy and Q Score with teammates.
“His smile is huge,” Rudock said. “If you just say, ‘Hey, DP, what’s up?’ He’ll look up with that smile and that’s something that stays with you.”
You can see Powell’s smile on the phone, even when it’s his old coach talking about him from Ephraim. You finish introducing yourself to Bayard and say you’d like to learn a little about Damond Powell.
“Absolutely, he’s my favorite,” Bayard said, seconds into the conversation. “I still text him and talk to him quite a bit. He’s one of the greatest young men I’ve ever known. His enthusiasm and joy, just in life and in general, are what will get him where he needs to go.
“A lot of junior college kids can give up. They’ve never been taught how to go to class. He wants to do it. He knows he needs to do it. He’s learning and teaching himself how to do these things that he’s never learned, study habits and expanding his mind and getting into those things. He wants to do it.”
After Powell committed to Iowa, a couple of schools came sniffing around Ephraim.
“I told them if you even want to talk to him, don’t just bring up plays and football,” Bayard said. “Bring up how you’re going to take care of him. And then, they brought up how many catches he was going to have and all that. He said, ‘That’s not what I’m all about.’ That’s why he picked Iowa. They said they wanted to take care of him as a person and football player.”
So, this summer in Ephraim. Powell needed to finish his class work at Snow. His biological football clock ticked away in Iowa City. The team was poised to report. Powell had a lab class.
“What Ephraim is for our players in the summer is us coaches and school,” Bayard said. “There aren’t as many distractions and I was constantly on his [behind] to make sure he was in class and all of those things. I would meet with his teachers. He turned in his assignments and showed up everyday.
“There was nothing else to do here.”
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