They’d put in the work to go anywhere they wanted, thrust on the radar of dozens of Division I coaches before they even could drive.
That’s football in the greater Miami area. From your first snap in Pop Warner, performance is requirement.
“It’s way deep in Miami,” Utah running back Zack Moss said. “Coming from where we’re from, that’s the only way out. That, basketball, track or something like that. If you’re not doing any of those three, you’re probably somewhere on the corner or something like that. So we never had pressure here to be really good.”
Hallandale trio leading the way
QB Tyler Huntley, sophomore • 1,953 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 64.9 percent completion percentage; 432 yards rushing, three touchdowns
RB Zack Moss, sophomore • 772 yards, 151 carries, seven touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry
WR Demari Simpkins, sophomore • 285 yards, 23 receptions, one touchdown, 12.1 yards per reception
Yet here they are in Salt Lake City.
To understand why they took the risk and wanted to buck a trend, why they each chose to move 2,500 miles away from the neighborhoods and football fields that created them, the answer lies in the results.
It’s been two years since Moss, Tyler Huntley and Demari Simpkins spurned offers from high-profile programs close to home in South Florida, packed up and relocated to Utah.
“We knew who we were coming here,” said Moss, now Utah’s starting running back. “We knew our time was going to come. We knew we’d play early here and make an impact in the Pac-12, make an impact for this team and help this team win games and set it up for the future.”
The Florida sophomores are both the now and what’s ahead for the Utah offense.
The former high school teammates each assumed starting roles on the offense out of fall camp. Huntley, the dual-threat quarterback; Moss, the every-down running back; and Simpkins, the speedy, shifty wide receiver. Simpkins, a former high school quarterback, converted to receiver to play alongside Huntley and Moss at Hallandale High — about 30 minutes north of Miami — in their final year at the prep level.
Looking back, he is not the least bit stunned to see the trio has established itself.
“Where we’re from, we’re built on competition,” Simpkins said. “So it’s a matter of time where we’re going to be able to produce.”
South Florida is one of the notable hotbeds churning out the nation’s top football talent. So from the time they were in little league, they regularly were lining up across from future college football players. Huntley, Simpkins and Moss met each other at a young age through the youth football circuits and eventually played on traveling 7-on-7 club teams.
“Down here in South Florida, it’s always competition,” said Tyler Huntley’s mother, Regina. “Every week, every day. It’s a lot of competition. Them feeling the pressure here, it was a lot on them. It’s so much talent they had to compete against.”
That competition instilled the need to succeed before they were even teenagers. The environment, the trio says, shaped them, prepared them for the rigors of college football. This, their time at Utah as starters on a Pac-12 team, is the payoff.
“We don’t feel no pressure,” Simpkins said. “Like I said, we’re built for this. We’ve been in more worse situations back home than just football. There’s more to life than just football.”
Moss recalls the need to rise to the occasion on the field as a Pop Warner running back. Simpkins, too.
“Our goal was just to get away,” he said. “We’d seen it was a good opportunity [at Utah], and just took it.”
They don’t take it for granted. They just want their trajectory to continue.
And every once in a while, it hits them — the realization that the moments the three envisioned when being recruited by former Utah assistant and Miami coaching legend Dennis Erickson are reality.
“There’s been a couple times where we’re sitting next to each other at lunch or something and we’re talking like, ‘Yeah man, we’re on this level. We’re doing it,’” Huntley said. “We’ve just got to keep doing it. We’ve gotta find what we need to do better.”
It was Erickson who first saw Huntley and knew he had to offer the quarterback. Simpkins and Moss eventually followed suit. Moss, once committed to Miami, shifted gears and chose Utah with his teammates. In an interview with The Miami Herald two years ago, national recruiting analyst Ryan Barstow said, “Dennis, when he comes down here, he gets what he’s looking for.”
“A lot of people came in [after them],” Erickson said recently,” but they didn’t change their mind.”
“A lot of good football left with those guys in our program,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, “and we hope to continue that pipeline [in Florida].”
While they are relishing their young careers in Utah, they do miss home. Home-cooked meals are one of the highlights when Huntley’s parents visit or Simpkins’ mother arrives in town.
The trio is comfortable, though, established so far away from the fields that first showcased their abilities so many years ago. For Moss, his piece of home arrives around 1 a.m. after every game when he fields a phone call from his oldest brother, who gives his scouting report on what went well in the game and what must improve.
Then he hands the phone off to Moss’ father, who does the same.
“It’s cool,” Moss said.
His parents haven’t been able to make a trip out to Utah yet to watch him play in person. Moss is hoping for some time in 2018 that not just his parents but also his siblings and grandparents can soak in the atmosphere of Rice-Eccles Stadium with No. 2 in the backfield.
“Like I’ve said, coming from where I’m from,” Moss said, “it’s just too far right now.”
At the conclusion of practice this week, the trio huddled up under the lights, bundled up to combat the brisk late-fall conditions. Underneath his pads and practice jersey, Moss wore a dark gray Hallandale hoodie. Down the left arm, it said “Chargers.” Home is never too far away.
UTAH AT NO. 16 WASHINGTON
At Husky Stadium, Seattle
Kickoff • 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday
TV • ESPN
Radio •700 AM
Records • Utah 5-5, 2-5 Pac-12; Washington 8-2, 5-2
Series history • Washington leads, 9-1
About the Utes • Utah is 0-3 against the Pac-12 North in 2017, losing to Stanford, Oregon and Washington State. … The Utes have at least six injured players who are expected to be game-time decisions, according to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. … Utah’s last trip to Seattle was its first and only win so far against the Huskies, a 34-23 win in November 2015. … Utah committed seven turnovers in the loss to Washington State at home last week. … Utah senior team captain Troy Williams is a former Husky, playing two seasons in Seattle.
About the Huskies • Washington running back Myles Gaskin is only the third running back in program history to rush for three straight 1,000-yard seasons. The junior has 1,038 yards and 15 total touchdowns in 10 games this season. … After throwing for 43 touchdowns a year ago, quarterback Jake Browning has 16 for the Huskies this year. … Washington is coming off a loss at Stanford last Friday, its second Pac-12 loss of the season. … Star linebacker Azeem Victor has been suspended indefinitely after his arrest Sunday on suspicion of DUI, according to coach Chris Petersen.