SAN DIEGO — You’ve seen Geno Stone play football. You know he’s strong and confident. Any safety who plays the alley, where big plays happen on the outside, and lands as many big hits out there as Stone qualifies as confident.
So, the news is that Stone, a junior, has put in for an NFL Draft evaluation and likely will play Friday’s Holiday Bowl without a final decision on where he might play football in 2020.
As it is with defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, this is an “ongoing process.”
This is where Stone, the strong and confident player who slings into the alley and picks off jet sweepers like it’s in his DNA, starts to get uncomfortable.
“You’re kind of in a sticky situation,” Stone said. “I could come back or go and it’s not going to hurt me much either way. It’s kind of a win-win situation.”
Let’s hit the early-entry topic one more time before the No. 16 Hawkeyes (9-3) take on No. 22 USC (8-4) in the Holdiay Bowl on Friday. No, it’s not a fun topic for fans. Yes, it’s a giant leap for the players who have that in front of them.
The NFL offers money to people for playing football. Colleges can’t, or aren’t supposed to. And so the Hawkeyes have another “sticky situation,” just as they did with Josh Jackson and James Daniels in 2017, with Anthony Nelson, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and Amani Hooker in 2018 and now Epenesa, Wirfs and Stone in 2019. All seems to be quiet with offensive tackle Alaric Jackson and defensive end Chauncey Golston, two NFL bodies who apparently are on track for a 2020 season with the Hawkeyes.
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It’s happened enough now to his Iowa program (started in 2002 with tight end Dallas Clark) that head coach Kirk Ferentz is kind of “whatever works” with the topic. He clearly doesn’t want his players revealing their decisions publicly before the bowl. In 2009, when then-junior offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga decided to make the jump, he put the news out the day after the Orange Bowl.
Ferentz is honest and does work to get his players a fair opinion on how the NFL regards their talents and draft status.
Part of Ferentz’s message also is the NFL is a grind. Men are playing for mortgages while spackling their bodies together for preseason, 16 games and then the playoffs. Maybe it’s the cautionary portion of the speech he gives NFL early-entry prospects every year.
“You can’t compare NFL football to any other sport,” Ferentz said. “It’s unique. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand that, people who are making those decisions sometimes. You get with and are playing against a bunch of men. It’s a really hard, physical, long season. It’s one of those deals.”
Stone became great friends with Hooker during their Iowa years. Hooker won the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year before entering the NFL last season. Stone and Hooker are similar players with similar builds and similar skill sets. Hooker was drafted in the fourth round by the Tennessee Titans and signed a four-year contract worth $3.2 million with a signing bonus of more than $700,000.
“Geno and Amani Hooker are tight,” Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker said. “Obviously, there’s some transactions and they’re still friends. We’ve talked about it, but nothing has really been decided at this point.”
Parker said “football instincts,” reading and seeing the game and being where they need to be, are strengths for Stone and Hooker.
Stone isn’t going into Friday’s game looking for a read on his NFL-ness. That will happen, either way. USC is stacked at wide receiver, with record-breaker Michael Pittman leading the way.
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If it was as easy as Stone believing or realizing that he’s as good as Hooker, he probably would’ve already announced. It’s not that easy for a player like Stone. He knows his football film is fine, it’s the combine measureables that he’ll have to literally outrun. Stone even said if he stays or goes, he’ll need to work on speed.
Maybe the decision is easy. The reveal doesn’t seem to be a ton of fun for these guys, at least not in front of cameras and notebooks. Epenesa did have some fun with the question this week. Wirfs froze and kind of stammered. Eventually, Stone dropped his eye contact and carefully chose his words.
And, yes, the difference between their decisions is Epenesa and Wirfs are likely looking at first-round paydays. Stone might be on a fourth-round path. That probably doesn’t make it any easier for Stone. Fant went No. 20 last year and received a $7.1 million signing bonus — that’s guaranteed money, by the way.
“I asked Amani how hard it was to leave and step away from the program,” Stone said. “It’s not like you want to let your teammates down. You want to come back. You want to finish with your class, but at the same time, you’re trying to do what’s best for you.”
Stone said he’ll talk to his family after the Holiday Bowl. The decision will come in around a week and whatever it is, know that it is a risk and it’s not an easy decision to make.
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