Geno Stone looks to make his mark as leader of retooled Iowa Hawkeye secondary
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Geno Stone is Iowa’s lone veteran safety this spring: a proven commodity, a rising star.
But that’s certainly not how he sees things. Stone, a junior atop the depth chart at strong safety, sat down with defensive coordinator Phil Parker before spring practices began.
Parker asked Stone what he wanted to accomplish in April. He was taken aback by the response.
“I said my goal is to win my starting job back,” Stone told his coach. “I said I just want to feel like I’ve never arrived, like you always told me since my freshman year. … In the NFL, you never know what’s going to happen. You can get dropped or anything. So that’s how I’m going to feel here.”
The Hawkeyes are 10 practices into a new season, with plenty of questions to answer. But it’s clear that Stone isn’t about to be dropped. He’s been asked to be the leader of the back seven of the defense after a season that saw him emerge with 39 tackles and four interceptions.
It was Stone’s ability to excel at strong safety a year ago that led Parker to move Amani Hooker to a new “cash” position and change the entire complexion of the Iowa defense forever. It’s a 4-2-5 scheme going forward, and Stone was an important reason why.
Hooker is gone now, the NFL beckoning after three seasons. So is Jake Gervase, who led Iowa from the free safety spot the past two years.
“I do feel like an old guy in the defensive backs group,” he said Tuesday. “I like trying to help these kids out a lot.”
The initial plan this spring was to move Stone back to free safety, the deepest player in the defense who typically has to have the deepest knowledge of the game. But sophomore Kaevon Merriweather has taken that spot, Stone said, leaving him at strong safety. Both players feel more comfortable in those roles.
For Stone, a hard-hitting 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, the position takes advantage of his ability to stop the run and to tangle with opposing tight ends. He said he’ll still make the coverage calls as the “quarterback” of the secondary.
Gervase isn’t surprised by this. He knows Stone is a smart player.
“Behind Amani and myself last year, he was kind of the guy that knew the most about the defense. He knew the checks and calls to make,” Gervase said.
Merriweather was a special-teams standout last season but has one career tackle to his credit. He’s still learning his position.
“I’m trying to get him on the veteran level. He needs to know more,” Stone said of Merriweather. “There’s times he’s out there and he looks like a freshman still. He’s showed a lot of flash.”
Last spring, Stone could have said the same of himself. He had 17 tackles and one interception as a rookie forced into action by injury. He had Gervase and Hooker to lean on.
“This year, I feel like I’m on my own, really,” Stone said.
It is jarring to see an Iowa secondary so light on experience. But the team has lost star juniors to the NFL Draft the past two seasons (Josh Jackson in 2018, Hooker this year). That’s in addition the graduation losses of stalwarts such as Gervase and Miles Taylor and the transfer of Brandon Snyder for his final season.
Ojemudia in search of a starting spot
Of those battling for starting spots this year, only Michael Ojemudia is a senior. And he’s playing every position he can this spring as Parker looks for the optimal spot for him.
Ojemudia has started at cornerback in each of the past two seasons, only to lose that job at times. He’s listed as the starter at right corner for now. He’s also playing the “cash” position and backing up Stone at strong safety, though.
“We just want to put the best five dudes on the field,” Ojemudia explained.
“It’s our job to make (Parker’s) job hard.”
Ojemudia, at 6-1, 200 pounds, roamed the interior of the defense in his high school days in Michigan. He came to Iowa thinking he’d be a strong safety, reading and reacting to opposing fullbacks and tight ends. He’s had 65 tackles and three interceptions in his time at cornerback. He feels he’s much better in coverage now.
But he’s open to anything. Matt Hankins is lined up at the other corner spot. Both have spent time auditioning for the “cash” role. So have second-year players D.J. Johnson and Julius Brents.
“Everybody has to be at their best coming out of camp” in order to earn a starting position, Ojemudia said.
But for him, there’s a finality to this all. And he’s feeling it.
“There is a little more pressure,” Ojemudia said. “You’ve just got to be perfect all the time now. Because this is actually your last chance to make the best impression you can on everybody.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.