Zack Moss has become a big part of the Utes' offensive identity

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teammates in high school in South Florida, Demari Simpkins, Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss decided to come to Utah together and have found their way onto the University of Utah starting lineup. They were photographed following football practice on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City Tuesday November 14, 2017.

An injured Tyler Huntley watched from the sidelines and finally saw the guy he’d been looking for all season as his former high school teammate Zack Moss, the Utes’ starting running back, bullied Colorado’s defense.

“I actually got on him a couple times because in high school nobody could tackle him,” Huntley said. “So I was like, ‘You got to get back to that Zack Moss I know.‘”

Huntley’s presence as the starting quarterback in offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s new offense ironically seemed to relegate Moss to a supporting role. The driving force on offense was Huntley’s dual-threat abilities for the first month of the season.

But Moss’ importance became undeniable by the end of the regular season. The sophomore became the program’s fourth consecutive 1,000-yard rusher with a 196-yard rushing performance as the Utes clinched their fourth consecutive postseason berth. Tuesday’s Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against West Virginia gives Moss a chance at an encore.

“[There was] big growth from my freshman year to my sophomore year as a person and as a football player,” Moss said. “I didn’t know much as a freshman at the position. It had just been my third year playing the spot, so this year I just learned so much. This was just a little platform for me this year to become who I really am my junior year.”

Moss provides a bulldog mentality, inflicting punishment on opposing defenses and injecting energy into the offense. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Moss has rushed for 1,023 yards and nine touchdowns on 194 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and led the team in all-purpose yards (1,257).

“We’re a better football team when we are physical in the run game and getting those yards, and it was great to see the light switch come on for Zack,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He’s, in my opinion, capable of being a big-time back and a guy that can carry the ball 200-plus times in a season.”

HEART OF DALLAS BOWL<br>Utah vs. West Virginia<br>When • Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. MST<br>TV • ESPN

Moss went into preseason camp competing with Armand Shyne for the starting job until Shyne’s season ended before it started due to a broken arm suffered in August. Moss rushed for 128 yards in the season opener against North Dakota, but he gained a total of 64 yards the following two games combined as Huntley went into Pac-12 play as the team’s leading rusher.

But Moss made his presence felt with 167 total yards (141 rushing) in the Utes’ 28-27 loss at eventual Pac-12 champions USC, which marked a turning point in his season. Moss averaged 97 yards per game in the past seven games and scored six touchdowns in the past three games after scoring three in the first eight games of the season.

“I wish I knew because he has really come of age the last half of the season,” Whittingham said about the reason behind Moss’ late-season surge. “Sometimes a light switch just goes on for those guys and the game starts to slow down for them, and they start to feel more comfortable, but he has really been a big plus for us.”

Whittingham acknowledged Huntley’s running ability could take carries from Moss in a game, but he also said the major difference in Moss’ production has been the way Moss ran to finish the season.

Moss’ late-season success stems from a combination of factors, including the offensive line gelling and facing defenses that struggled to stop the run. Whatever the case, Tuesday’s game could serve as a springboard into his junior season.

“I’m just coming in as another game,” Moss said. “Of course, coming off that last game I felt great. I’m just coming out here trying to repeat every day and be the same guy in practice. It’s been challenging, but I think I’m ready for the challenge against West Virginia.”

ZACK MOSS GAME-BY-GAME PERFORMANCES <br>North Dakota, Aug. 31 • 22 carries for 128 yards, 1 TD <br>BYU, Sept. 9 • 11 carries for 21 yards, 0 TDs <br>San Jose State, Sept. 16 • 11 carries for 43 yards, 1 TD <br>Arizona, Sept. 22 • 14 carries for 73 yards, 0 TDs <br>Stanford, Oct. 7 • 15 carries for 79 yards, 1 TD <br>USC, Oct. 14 • 20 carries for 141 yards, 0 TDs <br>Arizona State, Oct. 21 • 12 carries for 49 yards, 0 TDs <br>Oregon, Oct. 28 • 10 carries for 53 yards, 0 TDs <br>UCLA, Nov. 3 • 23 carries for 153 yards, 2 TDs <br>Washington State, Nov. 11 • 13 carries for 32 yards, 2 TDs <br>Washington, Nov. 18 • 17 carries for 55 yards, 0 TDs <br>Colorado, Nov. 25 • 17 carries for 196 yards, 2 TDs