Stone becomes latest in long line of standout Iowa defensive backs
Geno Stone was lightly recruited at by Power 5 schools, but he never stopped working. Now, he's one of the Big Ten’s best players.
November 26, 2019
Geno Stone only had one Power 5 offer out of high school.
The New Castle, Pennsylvania, native never received a scholarship offer from his home school, Penn State. Another Big Ten team — Michigan State — canceled his visit after the team reached its scholarship limit at defensive back.
Stone, frustrated with the recruiting process, committed to Kent State and was ready to close the door on other schools. Then the Hawkeyes came calling.
Iowa’s junior safety is now one of the best defensive backs in the Big Ten and the latest in a long line of talented Hawkeyes in the defensive backfield.
It didn’t come easy, but Stone wouldn’t want it that way.
Multi-talented doesn’t do Stone enough justice for the type of football player he was in high school, but it is accurate.
Stone played quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back for New Castle High School in New Castle, Pennsylvania. As a senior, Stone recorded 97 tackles, three sacks, and 10 interceptions. On offense, he threw for 1,997 yards and ran for 718.
He scored 34 touchdowns that season — 16 passing, 14 rushing, two on defense, and two on punt returns.
“Geno was a touchdown waiting to happen,” said Joe Cowart, Stone’s head high school football coach. “He was always consistent as a player for us, and I think that was bred from how competitive he was. Winning was so important for him. On Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday at practice, the competitiveness just oozed off of him.”
Stone earned first-team all-state honors as a defensive back that season, as well as first-team all-conference on defense and as an athlete.
Playing multiple positions — and playing them well — is no easy task, no matter how athletically gifted someone is.
It takes a smart player.
“I talked to our head basketball coach a lot about this,” Cowart said. “When Geno played basketball, he was the guy that our head basketball coach said, ‘I would feel comfortable with playing Geno at all five positions on the basketball court. Because he’ll know, regardless of what we’re doing, where he needs to be.’
“That was the type of player he was for us. Defensively, he didn’t only know what he had to do, but he knew what everybody had to do. And at the quarterback position, it was the same thing. He’s the guy who knows what the picture is supposed to look like with all 11 people on the field, and that is such a rarity in high school football.”
Stone’s play in high school set him up for an opportunity to play at the next level.
An advantage Stone had playing at New Castle was that he knew what it was going to take to play college football — especially in the Big Ten.
Malik Hooker was a senior when Stone was a freshman in high school.
Hooker went on to play safety for Ohio State, where he intercepted seven passes in 2016 and scored three touchdowns. Hooker was a first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
“It’s pretty cool seeing him, what he’s doing now, being one of the best safeties in the NFL,” Stone said. “I still talk to him every day; I get advice from him all the time. He always set the bar at New Castle, being that kind of athlete. I feel like me and his little brother kind of followed in his footsteps, and definitely more have followed in his footsteps, too.”
Despite his stat-sheet stuffing numbers at a high school that had produced talent to the college level before, the offers from big-time programs were not flocking in for Stone.
“I was at my wits’ end,” Cowart said. “I could not believe the lack of attention that he was receiving from local schools and regional schools. He was one of the handful of best players in the state of Pennsylvania the year he came out. I mean him and five other guys at the skill positions. You could throw him into a hat, and they were all that good.”
Most of the programs interested in Stone were recruiting him as a defensive back, although some offered the playmaker an opportunity to stay on the offensive side of the ball, including at quarterback.
“Navy offered me as a safety, but they also told me I could be a quarterback or a running back in the triple option,” Stone said. “At first it was something I thought about, attending the Naval Academy. I looked into it. Later on, when I got into my recruitment, I kind of fell off from it.”
Now, as a permanent defensive player for Iowa, Stone has limited opportunities to touch the ball.
Stone is satisfied with leading the Iowa defense, but he’s always looking for a way to get the ball in his hands.
“Every time I’m back there for a punt, I’m hoping I get a return,” Stone said, smiling. “I love having the ball in my hands, I love trying to make plays. But I’m a defensive player, and I’m happy being on my side of the ball.”
Not finding the type of attention he expected from large schools, Stone grew frustrated. He was content with ending his recruitment and following through on his commitment to Kent State.
Then, very late in the recruiting process, Iowa entered the picture.
“At this point, Geno was nothing short of fed up,” Cowart said. “It wasn’t as if Geno was like, ‘I don’t want anything to do with Iowa.’ He was more like, ‘I don’t want anything to do with recruiting at all anymore.’ Definitely with his mother’s help, and some of our coaches, we had some war room meetings with Geno. We just said, ‘You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your family to go and give this a legitimate, serious look.’”
It all came down to Stone’s mother, Erin.She pushed her son to explore becoming a Hawkeye, letting him know she was behind him all the way.
“It was a decision between me and my mom, really just waiting for her to basically tell me she was OK with me leaving,” Stone said. “I really wanted to stay close to home with my family. But she always told me she didn’t want me to regret anything, so I ended up coming to visit [Iowa], and I fell in love with the place.”
Not only did Stone fall in love with Iowa, but the Hawkeyes also fell in love with him.
Under head coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have had remarkably good fortune as far as bringing in under-recruited defensive backs. Micah Hyde, Desmond King, Josh Jackson, and Amani Hooker all made first-team All-Big Ten while at Iowa despite having no Power 5 offers outside of the one they got from the Hawkeyes.
“We just saw that he’s a good football player,” Ferentz said. “Maybe he’s not tall enough, not quite tall enough or quite fast enough but he plays good football. I hate to use the word “instinct,” because that makes it sound like the guy doesn’t work at it. He works at it.
“There’s instinct that — guys tend to study and get an edge from being smart players. He was a quarterback and that probably helps a little bit, too. He’s just a good all-around football player that maybe other people thought was not quite, but we thought he was pretty good.”
Stone signed his letter of intent on Feb. 1, 2017, putting an end to a long recruiting process.
It wasn’t the school Stone may have thought of at first, but Iowa saw the type of player he was and the type of player he could be.
In the end, his mom knew best.
“His mother was so spectacular,” Cowart said. “As far as saying, ‘Whatever I need to do. If I need to take him on a 10-hour drive in the middle of the night, I’ll do it.’ And they did. That’s how he ended up at Iowa.”
The day Stone moved to Iowa City was an interesting one for him, but it’s one he will likely never forget.
Nor would he want to. It’s the day he met the person he describes as his best friend — Iowa junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
“When I first got to campus I was roommates with Kyshaun Bryan, but as soon as I got in my room, I see Ihmir coming by my room, and he just starts talking to me,” Stone said. “I’m like, hold on, I don’t know this dude. Ever since then, me and him are really close.”
It just so happened Smith-Marsette lived down the hall from Stone, and both were among the first to move in that day.
The rest is history.
“I was roommates with a basketball player,” Smith-Marsette said. “[Geno] was one of the first people that moved in. I met him, I met his mom. Everything was great, we really connected. That’s been my boy ever since. When it was time to move off-campus, we live together. So that’s been my boy since day one.”
That friendship has brought Smith-Marsette back to Stone’s hometown.
Stone has made such a habit of bringing Smith-Marsette home with him that New Castle has embraced the New Jersey native as one of their own.
“My mom treats him like her son, too,” Stone said. “We have a bond that will never be broken, it’s going to go on for a lifetime. It’s pretty cool for me to bring him home. Everyone treats him like they treat me, they’d do whatever for him. After every game everyone is texting me, ‘Good game, and also tell Ihmir good game.’ It’s pretty cool, like he’s a part of our family.”
That family-like mentality extends to members outside of the Stone household.
Cowart has become quite the Iowa fan thanks to his former player and New Castle’s “adopted son.”
“When I watch Iowa games, I freak out just watching No. 6 and No. 9,” Cowart said. “Ihmir is our adopted son here in New Castle too, so we’re huge Iowa fans here, huge [Smith-Marsette and Stone] fans here. We’re rooting on those guys and everything at Iowa.”
Stone made an impact right from the start at Iowa. He was awarded the team’s Next Man In Award as a true freshman for his contributions on special teams.
As a sophomore, Stone saw action in every game, including finding his way into the starting lineup at strong safety eight times.
Stone broke onto the scene in his second year as a Hawkeye. He was named as an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection after compiling 39 tackles and four interceptions on the year.
In his return to his home state to play Penn State, Stone made it clear what the Nittany Lions had passed on, intercepting a pass and taking it back 24 yards for the first touchdown of his college career.
“We knew that wherever he landed he was going to be impactful, because that’s just the kid he is,” Cowart said. “He’s just so incredibly persistent and competitive. Once he snuck his way onto the field, you aren’t getting him off. I think he felt maybe a little bit vindicated from that. And like a lot of really good athletes, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and I don’t think that chip is going anywhere. That fuels him to be the type of player that he is.”
Now in his junior season, Stone continues to make plays all around the field.
Whether it be coming out of nowhere to make an NFL-caliber open-field tackle against Michigan or making big hits and forcing a turnover in front of former Hawkeye and Pennsylvania native Bob Sanders when he served as honorary captain against Purdue, Stone has emerged as the leader in Iowa’s secondary.
That leadership has been especially necessary this season with multiple injuries sustained in Iowa’s defensive backfield.
“There’s always going to be things that you don’t want to take place,” Ferentz said. “That’s the beauty of having veteran leadership, and Geno is not a senior, but he’s a veteran player that everybody respects and knows that he’s going to be ready to go.”
Stone has cemented his status as one of the premier players in the conference, while at the same time making other schools wonder what could have been.
But that’s just the type of competitor Stone is — he’s going to work for it.
“With Geno, there’s no better kid to root for,” Cowart said. “If you’re someone in Iowa who isn’t sure who you want your kid to look at and root for, put No. 9 on and root for that guy. He’s been behind the eight ball, he’s been under the radar, he’s been the underdog. All he does is fight and get after it. We couldn’t be more proud of the type of human being that Geno Stone is.”