Iowa Football

Geno Stone accepts more vocal leadership in Iowa football secondary

Pennsylvania native leads competitive group of defensive backs

Iowa defensive back Geno Stone returns an interception for a touchdown against Penn State at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Max Petrosky/Freelance)
Iowa defensive back Geno Stone returns an interception for a touchdown against Penn State at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Max Petrosky/Freelance)
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IOWA CITY — Iowa junior safety Geno Stone and his roommates — a group of three defensive backs and two wide receivers — compete in just about everything. Not even Buffalo Wild Wings is spared.

“Geno and Ihmir (Smith-Marsette) were arguing whether Buffalo Wild Wings was a fast-food restaurant or just a regular restaurant,” said Matt Hankins, a junior cornerback and one of Stone’s roommates. “It was going on for about a good hour-and-a-half or so. ... They literally called two different Buffalo Wild Wings and asked them, and they both said it was fast food.”

Stone is looking to use that same vocal presence to lead Iowa’s secondary to a Big Ten championship as “the old guy.”

The 5-foot-10 safety’s path to leading the secondary as a junior was hardly a sure thing, though. 247Sports ranked him as the 2,127th best prospect in his class, and Iowa was the only Power Five school to offer him a scholarship.

He had only one interception and one start in his career before 2018, but then he got an opportunity about midway through last season. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s switch from a 4-3 to 4-2-5 defensive base provided Stone the opportunity he needed.

“After (the switch to) the 4-2-5, it helped me on the field a lot,” Stone said. “It really displayed my ability on the field a lot and what I could do for this team.”

Yet Stone is hesitant to call his path challenging, recognizing teammates like Michael Ojemudia with more arduous roads to Iowa City.

Now that challenging path is helping to define how Stone leads the Hawkeyes.

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“It humbled me a lot,” Stone said. “Just being the player I am and basically just trying to teach all the younger guys how hard it is to really get to where you are today.”

When Stone wasn’t getting much playing time as a true freshman, he focused on taking “mental reps,” which included “sitting back and listening and not really saying much.”

Stone is quick to deny it’s his secondary, routinely highlighting the potential of his fellow defensive backs. Hankins still is waiting for his first career interception, but Stone expects Hankins to emerge as “one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten.”

Stone has plenty of confidence, though, refuting the idea that he’s still in former Iowa defensive back Amani Hooker’s shadow. He prefers to think of it as passing the torch from Hooker, the 116th overall pick in the NFL Draft, to him.

That torch brings plenty of responsibility. Iowa’s secondary led the Big Ten with 20 interceptions and ranked third in the Big Ten last season in passing yards allowed per game.

The Hawkeyes’ secondary has produced at least one NFL Draft selection for three consecutive years.

“I feel like that’s the standard here now,” Stone said. “Year in and year out, we produce defensive backs out of here.”

Stone has the benefit of learning from Jake Gervase and Hooker, who still talks to Stone almost every day. Gervase was the more vocal leader, and Hooker led more by example, Stone said.

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“If you wanted to watch somebody, you watch Amani on the field,” Stone said. “If you want to listen to somebody, somebody to go to, you go to Jake. ... He really taught me the defense, inside and out.”

Stone said the switch from free safety to strong safety last season should help make him a vocal leader. He doesn’t consider himself the most athletic player on the field, but he prides himself on his playmaking and ability to “play like a football player.”

“You can be faster or stronger than me, whatever,” Stone said. “But are you a football player?”

His experience playing baseball helped him with his ball skills as well.

“I played center field, so basically just watching the ball come off the bat really helped me with my reaction,” Stone said. “Basically just getting there before the ball gets there just helps me a lot.”

Stone’s competitiveness came out Oct. 27 against Penn State, the school in his home state that never offered him a scholarship. He had a 24-yard pick-six and recorded four tackles in front of plenty of friends and family.

“At first, I wasn’t really thinking about it that much,” Stone said. “Now I look back at it, and I’m like, ‘Alright, I did that for us.’”

“Us” is an important part for the defensive backs and wide receivers living together.

“We’re always talking about what we can each help each other do better,” Hankins said. “It helps a lot.”

Hankins thought his fellow defensive back won the Buffalo Wild Wings argument — it’s not fast food. Now Stone has his sights on more than four interceptions in 2019.

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“I can’t say how many I’ll get because I don’t know if the ball is going to come my way that much,” Stone said. “But if I were to set a goal, I’d say six or seven this year.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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