The mud room inside Utah’s football complex might not seem like the most ideal place for introspection. The muffled noise blasting in the weight room beyond the double-doors eventually becomes more clear — it’s whatever playlist is on the sound system for motivation — as players finish lifting for the day. It’s loud in the mud room, and conversations that had previously started continue, as it gets louder and louder. After pushing himself, one player nearly vomits in the trash can nearby.
This is also where one of Utah’s most prolific, most intimidating, most everything athletes sits on a wood bench and looks back, beyond the time before he became No. 2 Zack Moss, before he became one of the best running backs in college football. On this bench, the junior running back is told that his head coach, Kyle Whittingham, said he wishes he could have 10 consecutive years of Zack Moss choosing A gap or B gap or outside the tackles.
Because Moss is the generator that powers Utah forth, and has been since his breakout sophomore season a year ago. He’s the name that frequents sports talk radio waves around Salt Lake City, and when it’s time to talk Utes, you hear those two syllables. And you hear them often. Moss takes a few seconds to digest Whittingham’s latest praise.
“Coming in as a freshman, I was very hard-headed,” Moss said. “I wanted to do things my own way. I’m pretty sure any coach around here can attest to that.”
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Moss and his trademark style have been aptly described by Whittingham in press conferences throughout the last two seasons. A go-to is “violence,” the way Utah’s coach details how Moss runs, why opposing defenders try their darnedest to swallow him up, and so often, come up empty. Or, flat on their backs.
“Him saying that is really special to me,” Moss continues, “because it shows how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown from a freshman, because he knew what I could do.”
What Moss has done is establish himself as a player fans will eventually miss, and miss dearly. As the yards keep piling up, as the touchdowns become more frequent, as the carries become more and more routine, it’s becoming clear that Moss, should he decide to return for his senior at Utah, could go down as the best, most productive back in school history. Moss is now one of four Utes ever to have two 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
It’s how he got here, though, that can’t be skipped over.
Moss was raised in Liberty City in Miami, Fla. But he grew up, in so many ways, thousands of miles away, here in a place that is absolutely nothing like home. The way he wanted it.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) runs the ball as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.
Dameon Jones first noticed the bulky kid who could switch seamlessly between linebacker and defensive end and make the kind of thumping hits that would later become synonymous with his name. Back then, Moss was on the same little league team in South Florida as Jones’ son.
“It’s crazy,” said Jones, who would eventually become Moss’s high school coach at Hallandale High. “The good running backs sometimes don’t even play running back in little league.”
Moss didn’t. In fact, he didn’t move to running back full time until midway through his junior year. As he explained on the bench, he’s only been a running back for four years now. The last four years have been him punishing defenses, shifting his weight, waiting for open lanes to emerge and sprinting toward the daylight.
He’d long been sprinting toward something else, too, and he says he has found it in Utah: comfort. On the unforgiving streets of Liberty City, where drugs, gangs and violence are all commonplace, that’s where Moss comes from, but not where he wants to be. There’s no forgetting it.
“If you grew up where I grew up, you really don’t get homesick,” he said. “It’s not a neighborhood that you miss.”
Moss lived next to a trap house, where drug dealers peddled their product. Moss has had friends shot and killed walking home. Moss knows the two FIU players who were shot in a drive-by shooting less than 10 miles away from Liberty City in September. So when he does go home for those lengthy breaks in January and May, Moss sticks to a routine. He has to. He works out and stays as busy as possible, spending time with his mom, siblings and nieces and nephews. And while working out, he thinks about getting back to Salt Lake City, about the next step he can make.
He calls the decision to come to Utah alongside friends and high school teammates Tyler Huntley and Demari Simpkins “definitely the greatest decision that I’ve made.” The why: “Because this one I made myself.”
“He’s just a kind of hard-nosed tough,” Jones said.
At Utah, that’s become his calling-card, what he’ll long be remembered for. As the guy defenses have to expend every ounce of energy to wrestle down to the ground, this 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back whose mammoth arms bulge even mightier when he has a football tucked in tight. It’s where he knew he wanted to play as early as possible, but also found out that patience — as maddening as it can be — isn’t the worst attribute, either. Now, he’s a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award as college football’s player of the year.
“That’s how it is with us Miami guys,” Moss said. “We just seek competition, we know our capabilities and we feel like no one can play with us, so that’s really what it was for me coming in, trying to be able to sit back down, learn from the guy in front of you, get better when you see what they do.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) smiles on the sideline with a double-digit lead as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 20, 2018.
In high school, Moss hammered his way up the field.
“He’d just run through people,” Simpkins said. “Everything was wide open.”
So, what’s changed? Not a ton. Through nine games this year, he’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Moss has already carried the ball 179 times for 1,092 yards and 11 touchdowns. Simpkins said Moss has molded his game to the greats he’s studied. Now there’s power, and there’s finesse. They were revisiting film of the loss to ASU, and Simpkins turned to Moss and told him he’s now a complete running back.
“It’s just amazing how he runs the ball,” Simpkins said.
In a recent interview, Moss said he’d prefer a steady dose of runs over a lengthy drive as opposed to a one-play, 75-yard flashy run. So, yeah, he’s a different kind of running back and a different kind of dude. Moss said he is not the kind of guy to ever take the easy route or make things easy. It’s his style, the way he likes it.
“I think being able to go five or seven carries, and being the focal point of our offense on a scoring drive, it’s a true testament of a running back,” he said. “It’s what I want to do. You’re not always going to get the long 60, 70 yard runs. I believe in driving it right down the guy’s face.”
If the 100-yard-plus performances continue and Moss continues to shoulder the load the way he has, he’ll start to close in on several Utah rushing records, including career rushing yards, single-season rushing yards, single-season touchdowns and career rushing touchdowns. He’s within striking distance of all of them, yes, even in 2018.
“He’s a guy that wants to be counted when the money’s on the line, when it matters most,” said Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald.
It’s the little things, Jones said, that make Moss tick. Even away from the game that has given him so much. Moss says he’s a very simple guy. If given the choice between bouncing from party to party versus video games, he’d choose Madden or Call of Duty every time. He binge-watches “The Office.” He has a hard time falling asleep after games, he admits. Sometimes he’s up until the crack of dawn, still amped up, still ready for the rock.
“That’s him,” Jones said. ‘That’s Zack.”
Try as he might to unplug, he finds it impossible. He’s soaked up bandwidth by watching old highlight clips of Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James. Whatever he can do to keep his star rising, to ensure there are more linebackers to drag along, to be leaned upon to help win more games, he’ll do it.
When the mud room is eventually cleared out, the only noise left is the soft-spoken bruiser who explains that his leap to leave home, to come to a place so far away, to make a name for himself is a leap he’d make again and again.
“You get to make your own life choices and you’ve got to live with whatever you decide to do,” Moss said. “That’s how life is. Playing football, it’s kind of the same way. You pick the right hole, you get a touchdown. You pick the wrong hole, you get tackled. That’s how I see life, and that’s how I live it.”
FEED THE BEASTUtah running back Zack MossHeight » 5-foot-10Weight » 220 poundsPosition » Running backClass » JuniorHometown » Liberty City, Fla.The main attraction » Moss is averaging 6.1 yards per carry in 2018 and has rushed for 1,092 yards on 179 carries, which include 11 touchdowns. Moss is now one of just four Utes ever to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons and is currently ranked seventh in the nation in 120.5 yards per game.Closing in on records » Moss (2,647 career rushing yards) needs 427 yards to eclipse John White’s Utah single-season rushing record of 1,519 and just 81 yards to one-up his sophomore season total from a year ago. Moss’s 12 total touchdowns is six behind the all-time single-season touchdown record.