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Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker describes the ability of Amani Jones at middle linebacker, and how his group is communicating.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Geno Stone lives across the street from Jake Gervase. Amani Hooker is just a few houses away from both.

This is Iowa’s safety group heading into the 2018 football season. Not much separates them on or off the field. They study film together. They share meals. They’ve been “meshing” all year, as Stone puts it.

But only two of them can start. That would be Gervase, the senior free safety, and Hooker, the junior strong safety. Stone, a sophomore, is the primary backup for both. And he says that’s fine with him.

“I wouldn’t say I want the starting job. I’m not going to say that,” Stone said at Hawkeye media day last week, choosing his words carefully. “If I’m a backup, I’m a backup. It’s not my time to be a starter. You’ve got to work for it.”

This is no dilemma for Hawkeye coaches. Nor is it for Stone. There are three more than capable options at safety heading into the season, and Stone emerged last year to make that statement true.

He played in all 13 games and earned the team’s “Next Man In” award for his outstanding work on special teams. Injuries to Brandon Snyder, Miles Taylor and Hooker gave Stone a chance to get on the field some on defense, and he responded with his first career interception vs. Illinois and an eight-tackle showing at Nebraska.

Stone is up seven pounds, to 209, on his 5-foot-11 frame, and pushing (albeit gently) for more playing time in his second season. He doesn’t want to rock the boat. He is deferential to both Gervase and Hooker, whom he calls “my boys.”

Gervase, a former walk-on from Davenport Assumption, is in his fifth year on campus and knows the ins and outs of the defense in a way that Stone cannot yet. Stone marvels at the way Gervase always seems to grasp exactly what defensive coordinator Phil Parker is saying. Those are true teaching moments for the understudy.

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Hooker is a budding star after recording 56 tackles and a pair of interceptions last season despite missing three games to injury. Stone admires Hooker’s innate ability to track the football, a trait the two share.

“I have a good knack for the ball but his is probably better right now. Because he’s just been all over the field, honestly. He’s everywhere. His role from last year increased a lot,” Stone said of Hooker.

It was at this time a year ago that Parker first started talking up Stone, noting that the true freshman always seemed to be where the football was when he watched film of practice sessions. It was no surprise to see Stone earn a special-teams role from the get-go.

But he seemed to be buried on the depth chart behind four much more experienced players, until injuries started chipping away at the safety position. Taylor graduated. Snyder transferred. Stone gained ground.

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It’s been a remarkably smooth transition for Stone, whose preferred position was wide receiver at New Castle High School in Pennsylvania. That was until a coach pulled him aside one day in his junior year and suggested that if he wanted to play at the major-college level, he’d be wise to switch to defense.

“I didn’t really like defense,” Stone admitted. “But I trust my coaches. So it’s like your teacher’s telling you, 'if you do your assignment, you’re going to do good on your test.' That’s what I did.

“I just put my game towards defense. I learned to be a hitter. They told me to get to the ball. I just ran to the ball as hard as I could. That was really it.”

It sounds simple, but clearly Stone has natural instincts that can’t be taught. Last Saturday, Iowa had an open scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, and the offense never turned the ball over. There were two near-interceptions, though. Stone was the Hawkeye who got his hands on both passes.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a ballhawk. I can read the quarterback a lot. I can cover well,” he said. “I’m probably best in the defensive middle.”

So that’s where Stone will be, whenever his neighbors Gervase and Hooker need him.

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