Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to give readers greater insight into the Class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are traveling the country to meet the Iowa incoming freshman class. This week we feature 3-star safety Geno Stone.
GIBSONIA, Pa. — New Castle (Pa.) football coach Joe Cowart was frustrated and he wanted the college football world to know it.
Cowart’s all-everything threat Geno Stone torched the western Pennsylvania countryside through two rounds of district football and yet major colleges generated tepid interest. So before New Castle faced top-ranked Thomas Jefferson in the WPIAL district title game, Cowart sounded off in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“If this isn’t a Power 5 football player, I don’t know anything about football,” Cowart said. “He’s flat out one of the best players in the state of Pennsylvania, if not the best. He’s that good.”
Before that game, Stone produced a pair of playoff performances for the ages in a region known historically for high-caliber high school football. In a first-round district game, Stone threw for 4 touchdowns and rushed for 2 in a 51-43 upset of No. 2-seeded South Fayette. The next game, Stone rushed for 5 touchdowns and intercepted 3 passes in the Red Hurricanes’ 38-17 upset of Ringgold — the high school that produced Joe Montana.
“We’re on the first series of the football game, we run a little quarterback run with him,” Cowart said. “He pops about a 45-yarder and he just gave me one of those looks on the sideline like, ‘Coach this is going to be a good night.’ It certainly was. It just kept on getting better and better for him, and for us as a team.”
“I just had the mindset: have a nose for the ball, get the ball, score and be able to get the ball on defense and make plays on defense,” Stone said. “That whole time I just wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to make my team win. It was a surreal moment to win with that kind of a performance. It was probably one of the greatest performances in playoff history.”
Stone vaulted New Castle to its first district title appearance since 1998. He was a must-see player, yet major programs stayed away. Stone didn’t check all the boxes. Maybe he was a step too slow with a time of 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Perhaps he wasn’t tall enough at 6 feet, or heavy enough at 195 pounds.
Stone made several unofficial visits to Penn State — his dream school — plus others to Pittsburgh and Ohio State without receiving a scholarship offer. Ivy League schools came after him with Harvard offering first. Kent State provided Stone with his first FBS opportunity, and he committed. But the lack of attention was difficult for Cowart and Stone to accept.
“I felt like I was overlooked, underrated, under-recruited,” Stone said. “It was frustrating for the whole thing because I saw kids get offered I played against or I knew I was better. I knew I had better instincts and stuff like that.”
That’s why Cowart stepped forward.
“For whatever reason, people didn’t like him or liked people better than him,” he said. “I tried not to get frustrated when it comes to recruiting because things can happen and you certainly don’t want to sever ties with schools because you think they should take your kid or whatever.”
That was the theme of Stone’s recruiting until about eight days before signing day. Then Iowa got involved.
Iowa discovers a gemstone
The lengthy and aggravating recruiting process produced a happy result for Stone, who committed to Iowa shortly before National Signing Day. It capped a whirlwind sequence laced with elation after months of rejection and frustration. Even Stone’s trip to Iowa City was a snow-covered, figurative roller coaster.
Kent State remained Stone’s best option leading into the final month before signing day. Then Michigan State started showing interest. Stone was set to make an official visit with a scholarship offer forthcoming before receiving a bummer of a call. The Spartans obtained another commitment, and there was no need for another safety. The visit was canceled.
“It was very frustrating,” said Erin Stone, Geno’s mother.
About that time, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was in the region, scouring for another safety prospect. Through conversations with a Kentucky assistant, Parker found out about Stone. Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes then contacted Stone to find out if he would be receptive to meeting with Parker. The senior agreed.
Iowa’s staff saw the production. Stone scored 34 touchdowns as a senior, including 2 on interceptions and 2 on punt returns. He also picked off 10 passes, a WPIAL record, in his final season and set the school mark with 17 overall. He was a dual-threat athlete with 718 rushing yards and 1,447 passing yards as a senior. Stone’s 3.7 grade-point-average and multiple-sport background were a perfect fit for the Hawkeyes.
“Coach Parker came in and he said, ‘Joe, I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with this guy,’ ” Cowart said. ” ‘Why doesn’t he have 25 Power-5 offers?’ Some people didn’t feel like he was their type of guy. I think Iowa was comfortable in saying ‘we like to recruit really good football players,’ and he’s one of them.”
The more Barnes looked into Stone, the more he liked him. The Hawkeyes have a history of taking borderline Power-5 players and molding them into NFL success stories. Micah Hyde was a 2-star, 168-pound quarterback from northeast Ohio who was named the Big Ten’s top defensive back in 2012. Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2015 as the nation’s best defensive back. King intercepted 29 passes at his Detroit high school, yet neither Michigan nor Michigan State offered a scholarship. Both players were headed to MAC schools before Iowa stepped in with late offers. Both now are NFL players.
High character. Tough. Durable. Productive. Overlooked. Those traits provide the benchmark of an Iowa player, and Stone seemed to check every box.
“I’m not trying to put him in this category, but the last person you think about a guy like that is Desmond,” Barnes said. “Insane stats. Punt returner/kick returner. He was kind of under-recruited for some reason. For what reason? I don’t know. People thought Desmond might have been too small. Maybe it’s the same with Geno. But I can tell you he’s not small. He’s actually a pretty big kid. Maybe it’s dumb luck that we stumbled into him, and we’re the ones to get him. But we’re extremely happy.”
“We don’t do a lot in western Pennsylvania anymore, but when we started doing the research, we liked him on film,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We liked what he did academically; he was being recruited by a couple of Ivy League schools. When we met him, we really liked him. I’m not sure why he wasn’t recruited harder, but we think he’s a pretty good player.”
Stone enjoyed the comparisons to King and Bob Sanders, an Erie, Pa., legend who played high school football against Cowart before starring at Iowa and with the Indianapolis Colts. But Michigan State, Penn State and other Big Ten schools had broken his heart. Plus, where was Iowa on the map?
That’s when mom stepped in and saved the day.
Mother knows best
Everybody in New Castle either knows Erin Stone or is related to her. New Castle athletics director Sam Flora is her uncle. Other cousins are assistant coaches for multiple sports. She’s a visible face in the community and grew up there.
She was 19 when she gave birth to Geno. His father, Jermaine Flamer, went to prison almost immediately afterward. For most of Geno’s life, Flamer has served time for drug-related offenses. Whether it’s that adversity or Geno’s status as his mother’s only child, their bond is ultra-tight.
“We have a close relationship,” Erin Stone said, drifting between laughter and emotion. “Sometimes he thinks he’s my dad. This is going to be a rough road. I’m gonna miss him. But I need to let go and I need him to reach for the stars because that’s what I’ve always told him since he was little. Always reach for his goals and this was his dream.”
Geno’s quiet demeanor belies his engaging personality. He credits his mother and grandmother, Debbie Stone, for raising him the right way. When he talks about his mom, his face beams with pride. Erin Stone now works as an orthodontist manager and travels throughout Ohio during the week.
“She did a lot for me growing up,” Geno said. “She did everything she could, even when she didn’t have the money to do it, she’d still do it.”
So when Iowa offered a scholarship, Geno bristled. It’s a 10-hour drive from New Castle to Iowa City. He didn’t want to get burned again, and he had a great relationship with the Kent State coaching staff.
“When you hear Iowa, you think it’s far away,” he said. “In my mind, I didn’t want another Big Ten school to do that to me, and I was actually scared to go to see how it would be. I kept telling my mom and my coaches that I didn’t want to go visit. I wouldn’t like it.”
Erin Stone heard her son’s concerns. She understood, but she pushed him to take the visit. She even accompanied him to Iowa City.
“I just didn’t want him to regret something later without seeing it first,” Erin said. “He was like, ‘Let me play my basketball game,’ and we drove 10 hours out there. We were out there 72 hours and then we were on the road again.”
Geno slept most of the trip, and then made the most of his visit. His host was safety Amani Hooker, and he enjoyed meeting the other freshmen. Geno took honors classes his whole life, so he was interested in the business school.
“As soon as I got up there, I loved it, actually,” Geno said. “It blew me away when I first saw the campus and stuff. It reminded me of Penn State, because that was my dream school that I wanted to go to. It was just a surreal moment to be there. It was a great opportunity.”
Their drive back include massive snowstorms, but the Stones returned to New Castle with a dilemma. Should they accept Iowa’s offer or stick with Kent State? One of Geno’s best friends, Indianapolis Colts first-round pick Malik Hooker, urged him to play at Iowa. But the distance made him reluctant to make the leap.
The morning Geno made his selection — one day before signing day — he sat by his mother’s bed at 7 a.m. and told Erin he was sticking with Kent State. As a senior, he was out of school by 10:45 a.m., and the announcement wasn’t until early afternoon. Erin took the day off, and told him she wanted to talk with him after he got out of class.
“I just said to him, ‘I haven’t said anything through this whole process, but now I’m going to step in and say something,’ ” Erin recalled. ” ‘Did I ever steer you in the wrong way?’ He said ‘No.’ I said, ‘To me, as you being my son, I treated you like my king your whole life. I think that’s how you’ll be treated there. You will be treated good, and I feel comfortable because it felt very family-oriented there.’ I said, ‘I’m going to tell you that I think you need to decide to go there.’ We just talked a little bit and he’s like, ‘I’m calling coach.’
“I think Geno waited for me to actually be OK with him leaving because it’s so far away. I think he wanted me to say, ‘It’s OK, you can do this.’ ”
Ready for the jump
On a sunny Friday afternoon at Pine-Richland High School, Geno Stone hung out with his track teammates before one of the largest regular-season track meets in the eastern United States. More than 30 schools participated in this co-ed meet, and parking was non-existent. Stone competed in the long jump and triple jump, and placed 12th in both events.
Stone also played basketball at New Castle, a Pennsylvania powerhouse. He averaged a team-high 16.4 points per game and drilled 91 3-pointers. But football is his best sport and his future.
Cowart raved about Stone’s football IQ and where he positioned himself and his teammates on every play. He doesn’t shy from contact, and his range as a free safety and kick returner displays an extra layer of potential.
“His ability to track the flight of the ball makes him a great punt returner,” Cowart said. “He’s the best punt returner I’ve ever been around. He’s like a center fielder; he’s got the ability to go track and go get it. Then when he’s playing that high safety, the same thing. A ton of range, an ability to intercept the point of the ball where it’s going to land, not so much play the receiver but play the ball. We say on defense, the ball’s the issue. Geno is certainly impactful around the football.”
Those traits were evident to Barnes during the recruiting process.
“He’s a very intelligent kid who’s incredibly tough and physical and you can see it on the football field in his film,” Barnes said. “Really instinctual. When you get a chance to sit down and talk with the kid, the family and the coach, you start to see that a lot of characteristics that we look for in guys that are successful here, he had those.”
With only weeks remaining in Stone’s senior season, the frustration that built during his recruiting process has dissipated. Stone is excited for the next step in his life and how he could fit in Iowa’s depleted secondary. He’s one of six incoming defensive backs and has an opportunity to play right away. He wants to reward Hawkeyes officials for their faith in him.
In turn, Stone plans to follow the career path of King, Hyde and Sanders as under-recruited overachievers.
“When that Big Ten school comes and they believe in you, you feel like you’ve got to take that opportunity,” Stone said. “Seeing them do that and seeing where they went and where Desmond’s going now, I feel like it’s a dream to play in the NFL. I just feel like if they did that, I can do the same thing, too.”
Previous Iowa Next Generation stories
- Iowa 5-star DE A.J. Epenesa has a giant burger named for him near his hometown.
- Epenesa and his family are 5-stars in Iowa and Edwardsville, Ill.
- How Tristan Wirfs embraced his size to realize his potential.
- OT Tristan Wirfs threw the third-longest shot put in Iowa high school history.
- Why Matt Hankins turned down Michigan for Iowa.
- Why seeing C.J. Beathard get drafted re-affirmed QB Peyton Mansell’s belief in Iowa.
- Why following his mom led DB Camron Harrell to Iowa.
- Harrell is chasing a triple crown this track season.
- How the most trying winter of OL Coy Kirkpatrick’s life helped turn him into a leader.
- How Kirkpatrick went from an Iowa State fan to an Iowa signee.
- The academic slap in the face that led DT Daviyon Nixon on a path to Iowa.
- How his dad’s workout routine helped mold Nixon into a Hawkeye.
- WR Henry Marchese’s recruiting odyssey ended with his dream offer.
- Why Iowa-Illinois is personal for Marchese and two of his brothers.
- How his father and brother inspired RB Ivory Kelly-Martin and helped lead him to Iowa.
- Why Kelly-Martin needed to be true to his school and transfer to his neighborhood school, Oswego East, for his senior season.
- How the honesty of the Iowa staff helped land P Ryan Gersonde.
- Aussie football provided Gersonde with uncanny accuracy.
- Why WR Max Cooper views Matt VandeBerg as a potential mentor.
- A look at how Cooper could make an immediate impact at wide receiver.
- Nate Wieland’s size and speed suggest he can develop into a special linebacker with the Hawkeyes.
- Indianapolis Colts first-round safety Malik Hooker provided Geno Stone with a nudge toward Iowa.