By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Geno Stone has yet to achieve stardom as an Iowa defensive back, but there are signs that it could happen as he enters his junior season.
One sign, of course, are his statistics from last season, which included a team-leading four interceptions and 39 tackles.
Stone was among three Iowa players who had four interceptions last season, the others being former defensive backs Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker.
Another sign of Stone's potential stardom is what happened, or what didn’t happen, to him during the recruiting process.
Iowa was the only school from a power five conference to have offered Stone a scholarship.
Michigan State was interested in Stone and he was set to visit, but his trip was cancelled after the Spartans reached their scholarship limit at defensive back.
Stone was hurt and upset by the snub, and he didn't want to visit another Big Ten school until his mother convinced him to give Iowa a look.
Stone listened to his mother and is so happy that he did.
"I’m just thankful that I have the mom that I do and really just making me come out here," said Stone, who drove 15 hours through a snow storm on his way back from Iowa City to Pennsylvania. "It’s probably one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life.”
Stone's recruitment hardly makes him unique compared to most of Iowa's defensive backs.
In fact, his lack of power five scholarship offers is more rule than the exception at Iowa as Stone would soon learn after becoming an Iowa defensive back in 2017.
Stone would learn that he had more in common with the legendary Bob Sanders than just being an Iowa defensive back from Pennsylvania.
“Basically, when they were recruiting me, all the other guys basically went through what I went through,” Stone said. And I was like, dang.
“They talk about Bob Sanders, and he went through the same thing. And that’s one of the best (defensive backs) probably of all time. So I was like, alright, if he went through that, too.”
Sanders picked Iowa over a scholarship offer from Ohio in 2000, and then he would go on to become arguably the greatest defensive back during the Kirk Ferentz coaching era, and maybe of all time at Iowa.
But there are more examples than just Sanders.
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Micah Hyde, Desmond King, Josh Jackson and Amani Hooker all made at least first-team All-Big Ten at Iowa despite having no power five scholarship offers except for one from Iowa.
You could dismiss it as a coincidence if it were just one or two defensive backs who have soared from obscurity to stardom at Iowa.
But to have had four do it in barely a decade, and five when you include Sanders, is far from a coincidence.
It is proof that Iowa defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Phil Parker has a gift for identifying overlooked talent and then developing it.
And now his latest example could be the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Stone, who started eight games at strong safety last season, but is now listed as the starter at free safety.
Or maybe it’ll be junior cornerback Matt Hankins who finished with 48 tackles last season despite missing five games due to injuries, or senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia, who started seven games last season and finished with 39 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups, or sophomore Kaevon Merriweather, who is poised to be the starter at strong safety after appearing in nine games as a true freshman last season.
Hankins had at least 23 scholarship offers according to Rivals, so he is sort of the exception to the rule at Iowa, although, only eight of his offers were from power five schools.
Hankins was asked at a press conference on Tuesday how he feels he stacks up to the other cornerbacks in the Big Ten.
It was a loaded question, but the Texas native showed that he was confident without being cocky or arrogant.
“I would say pretty well,” Hankins said. “I haven’t a chance to really show it, like last year I got hurt and was out for a while and came back.
“But for the most part, I would say it’s real well.”
The Iowa defensive backs should feel confident because they are part of a culture where others have thrived in their position.
The recruiting rankings don't matter to the Iowa coaches, especially to Parker. He trust his own instincts. And why shouldn't he given his track record?
Iowa is so reliant and pleased with its defensive backs right now that Kirk Ferentz has allowed Parker to install a new 4-2-5 alignment, which is now part of Iowa’s DNA according to the head Hawk.
Hooker started eight games in the 4-2-5 alignment at the new cash position, which is sort of a cross between a safety and outside linebacker.
Hooker's dual role allowed for him to showcase all of his skills and he was rewarded by being named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, and by being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson is one of the players competing for the cash position, so maybe he’ll emerge as Iowa’s next standout defensive back.
Sophomore Julius Brents is another intriguing possibility after having started five games at cornerback as a true freshman last season.
Iowa has had 11 defensive backs make first-team All-Big Ten since 2009, so it is reasonable to think that somebody will achieve that honor this season, or maybe even more than that.
Hooker, Jackson, King and Hyde were all named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year at least once while at Iowa.
One passes the torch to another and then seizes the opportunity.
It's a pattern that keeps repeating itselt at Iowa.