Utah football: Running back Zack Moss suddenly is the guy again

Injury to Shyne thrusts sophomore RB into No. 1 role

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah running back Zack Moss hops through a hole during the first day of Utah fall football camp. The sophomore is now the Utes' No. 1 running back entering the season with Armand Shyne sidelined indefinitely with an injury.

His hands are undeniably running back hands.

Massive paws, well-calloused from repeatedly gripping the football tightly, hands suddenly entrusted with an imperative role in a program still undergoing an offensive transformation. No matter. Utah is in need of its 19-year-old tailback from Hialeah Gardens, Fla., to meet the high standards set before him. And Zack Moss vows he’s up to the challenge.

“I do have a lot more on my shoulders,” he said, “but I’m ready for it.”

The sophomore running back had edged ahead of teammate Armand Shyne in the race for the No. 1 running back spot as recently as last week, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. Now, two weeks before the season-opener Aug. 31, it’s Moss as the clear-cut starter. Shyne, who was returning from a season-ending ACL tear in 2016, suffered an undisclosed injury that will keep him sidelined indefinitely.

There aren’t nerves, Moss said.

“I don’t see it as pressure,” he said. “I just see it as playing football.”

“He’s a smart kid, he knows what’s expected and right now he’s the lead back,” Whittingham said.

“Zack’s a pretty well-rounded guy,” Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said.

Moss played in 10 games as a true freshman a year ago, rushing for 382 yards and two touchdowns. Moss averaged 77 yards in Utah’s first four games of the year after the sudden retirement of former running back Joe Williams. An injury slowed down his production, as did the return of Williams, who went on to have a record-setting senior campaign. Moss rushed for a combined 73 yards on 18 carries the rest of the season.

Childhood friend, fellow Hallandale High product and Utah wideout Demari Simpkins said Moss’ demeanor changed in spring and continued throughout the summer and into fall camp.

ZACK MOSS <br>Height • 5 foot 10 <br>Weight • 213 pounds <br>Position • Running back <br>Class • Sophomore <br>Hometown • Hialeah Gardens, Fla. <br>RB No. 1 • True sophomore has been dubbed the No. 1 running back by the Utah coaching staff after junior Armand Shyne recently suffered an undisclosed injury that will leave Shyne out indefinitely. <br>Called on to produce • Moss played in 10 games, rushing for 382 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016. An injury and the return of Joe Williams slowed down his production. Moss rushed for a combined 73 yards on 18 carries after Williams’ and his return.

“I feel like Zack is really, really focused this year compared to last year,” Simpkins said. “He was behind Joe and he had competition with Armand, so he’s taking more control this year. I think he’s going to do big things.”

After the conclusion of a recent practice, Moss and running backs coach Kiel McDonald spoke extensively 1-on-1 as players filtered out of Rice-Eccles Stadium. McDonald is in his first year at Utah and said Moss has the ability to become a featured back in the Pac-12.

“Zack can do it all,” McDonald said. “He’s a five-tool running back.”

How long before Moss shows it consistently on the field as the primary backfield option?

“Honestly, a lot of that is on the young man to be great, and I know Zack wants to be great,” McDonald said. “He wants to take his game to another level and do some pretty special things. … He’s got the juice, he does.”

Simpkins believes so, too.

The Hallandale High trio of Moss, Simpkins and quarterback Tyler Huntley will influence Utah’s 2017 season one way or another. Much of that, Simpkins said, is due to the Miami-area trio feeling more settled and comfortable.

“Going somewhere far from home with people you know is a blessing,” Simpkins said. “It wasn’t like you going across the world from Miami to here, but [it’s gone] really well.”

The starter’s role in Taylor’s offense won’t resemble much of anything from a year ago. Running backs want to burst outside or slip between the tackles, but a priority is pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield these days. Moss has developed his hands and route running this fall, Taylor said, and is improving with his ability to pick up those delayed blitzes.

As for those big paws, they’ll remain well-used and calloused in Shyne’s absence.

“[Moss is] not going to hit all the holes,” Taylor said, “but I think he’ll hit more than he’ll miss.”

That’s the consensus around Moss this fall camp, who came to Utah a hyped, multifaceted high school star running back.

“Zack?” Simpkins said, “He will fool you.”