Former Hawkeye Geno Stone Bet on Himself and Won
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The National Football League season starts this week with 28 former Hawkeyes in uniform.
That includes rookies Tristan Wirfs of Tampa Bay and A.J. Epenesa of Buffalo. Both players left Iowa with a season of eligibility remaining, and no one blinked an eye. Wirfs was a first-round pick. Epenesa, a second-round pick, was on the board longer than expected. Proof, once again, that the draft is an inexact science.
But when safety Geno Stone announced the first week of January that he was also leaving a college season on the table to give the NFL a try, not everyone thought that was a wise move.
Geno’s gamble has paid off. He’ll be wearing No. 26 for Baltimore when the Ravens open the season at home against Cleveland on Sunday. It’s not the first time he rolled the dice and won during his football career.
He is, as Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is fond of saying, one of those good stories.
Stone originally committed to Kent State in December of 2016, after his senior season at New Castle High School in New Castle, Pa. A safety and a quarterback, he selected the Golden Flashes over schools like Army, Navy, Miami of Ohio, Buffalo and Ball State.
Stone had 13 tackles for a loss and 10 interceptions as a senior, and Kent State recruited him as a safety. But Iowa started sniffing around late in the process. Geno had dreamed of playing in the Big Ten…for Penn State. But the Nittany Lions never showed interest.
As Ferentz watched film of Stone, he loved what he saw. He also wondered why no other Power Five programs had offered a scholarship.
Finding lightly recruited players like Stone is a staple of the Iowa program under Ferentz. The Hawkeyes ultimately decided to offer Stone a scholarship, which he accepted the day before National Signing Day.
He’s not the first under-the-wire recruit of the Ferentz era. Josey Jewell, now the starting inside linebacker for the Denver Broncos, was a late offer. But not as late as San Francisco 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle.
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He wore a Hawkeye t-shirt under his shirt when he went to school that February morning, which was also signing day. Kittle walked into school without an offer. He left school with one, from Iowa. Kittle is now one of the elite players in the NFL.
Stone made the most of that late offer, too. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman for the Hawkeyes. He cut his teeth on special teams, another well-worn path to success on Ferentz-coached teams.
Stone went on to start 21 of his last 22 games in an Iowa uniform at strong safety. He replaced Amani Hooker as the starter in the fifth game of the 2018 season at Minnesota. That job came open when Hooker moved to the Cash position, and stayed there.
Stone had 39 tackles and four interceptions as a sophomore. He returned one of those picks for a touchdown in his home state, at Penn State.
He earned second-team all-Big Ten honors as a junior, starting every game at strong safety and recording 70 tackles, the third-most on the team. He was named a permanent captain on defense and was also presented the Hayden Fry Award on defense. He was the only Iowa defender to have at least one sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
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Stone announced his decision to turn pro on Twitter.
“I want to thank Coach Kirk Ferentz and the staff for taking a chance on a kid from New Castle, Pennsylvania when no one else would,” he wrote. He also thanked recruiting coordinator Tyler Barnes “for never giving up on me and pushing me to come visit the University of Iowa, what turned out to be the best decision of my life.”
Stone is the third straight player to go from Iowa’s secondary to the NFL with a season of eligibility remaining. Josh Jackson did it after the 2017 season, and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round. And Hooker did after the 2018 season, and was drafted in the fourth round by Tennessee.
Stone was the 219th player selected in the 2019 draft, a pick that Baltimore acquired from Minnesota. And there’s an Iowa connection there, too. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh once lived in Iowa City while his father, Jack, was an assistant football coach at Iowa.
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Stone joins Austin Blythe as seventh-round draft picks to make an opening day roster. Blythe, a center at Iowa, went to Indianapolis with the 248th pick of the 2016 draft. He played in eight games as a rookie, with one start. The Colts waived him after the season, but he signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
Blythe has played in 40 games for the Rams at guard. He’s started 18 games, including three of four playoff games. He’s listed as the starting center heading into Sunday’s opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
Stone is listed as the backup free safety behind DeShon Elliott for Sunday’s opener.
Wirfs is listed as Tampa Bay’s starting right tackle, where he’ll be protecting quarterback Tom Brady. Epenesa is listed as the third-team left defensive end. And Michael Ojemudia, a third-round pick by the Denver Broncos, is the No. 2 right cornerback.
According to Pick Six Previews, Iowa’s 28 players on the 53-man opening-day rosters ties for 12th among NCAA Division I programs.
Alabama leads the way with 56, followed by Ohio State (50), LSU (41), Florida (39), Michigan (33), Penn State (32), Georgia (32), Miami of Florida (30), Clemson (29), Notre Dame (29) and Oklahoma (29). Florida State and Washington also have 28 active players.