Hollywood, Calif. • Zack Moss’ style of running with the football is not always a matter of his own choosing.
“I can be elusive when it's needed,” he said, “and I can be downright nasty when it's needed as well.”
That’s a useful skill set. Utah’s senior running back is healthy, ready to destroy the school’s career rushing record and eager to see what the Utes can become in a season when they’re picked to win the Pac-12 championship. The knee injury that cost him the last five games of 2018 ultimately may work in the program’s favor, with Moss deferring his NFL pursuits and teaming with an offensive coordinator who knows his No. 1 job is to maximize him.
The days of “having to ask for more carries” apparently are over, as Moss reflected during the Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood, where he was named to the preseason all-conference first team.
“This program is built around the tailback position,” Andy Ludwig said.
That was before he even spent a day on the field with Moss, who was rehabilitating in the spring following knee surgery. Their collaboration officially begins Wednesday, when the Utes launch preseason camp and Moss returns to the practice field for the first time since early November. That’s when a pre-existing knee injury caught up to him during a routine nightly activity, ending his junior season.
Ever since then, Moss said, “I don't climb into bed anymore.”
That statement should have evoked a follow-up question about how he gets there — like having offensive linemen carry him, maybe? In any case, Moss said, “The knee is fine; I can do anything and everything I want to now. It’s a lot better than it was before.”
His knee locked up multiple times during his sophomore season, he said, becoming “something I just played through.”
And now? “He looks awesome. He looks fast,” said Ute receiver Britain Covey. “I mean, you've got 210 pounds, running a 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash], so ...”
Covey left his sentence unfinished, with more words and numbers to be added during a season when Moss expects to have a heavy, consistent workload. He's hoping for 25 to 30 touches per game. “Those don't all have to be carries,” he clarified, figuring Ludwig's passing scheme will make more use of the backs.
Judging by Utah’s performance last October vs. USC, the perfect number is 25. In the offense’s best showing of the season, Moss had 140 yards on 25 carries and quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 22 of 29 passes for 341 yards.
Moss also is willing to share the ball with other backs, knowing how Ludwig used James White and Melvin Gordon almost equally at Wisconsin in 2013. That won't happen at Utah, though, because there's a bigger dropoff from Moss to Devonta'e Henry-Cole and Devin Brumfield.
Ludwig intends for Moss to get 23 to 27 carries. Those are big numbers in this era of college football — even at Wisconsin, where the Badgers churn out big lineman and star runners. Jonathan Taylor averaged 23.6 attempts last season, tops in the country. Gordon had 24.5 carries in a Heisman Trophy runner-up season, with Ludwig calling Wisconsin’s plays in 2014.
In January, returning to Utah's campus after 10 years at five other schools, Ludwig promised “a premium commitment to running the football, which leads to a lot of good things.” He also said regarding a running back's workload, “You can't beat 'em to a bloody pulp. It's a physical, violent game.”
Utah’s usage of running back Zack Moss went up in the middle of the 2018 season, prior to his knee injury:
Weber State • 16 carries, 150 yards, one touchdown.
Northern Illinois • 16 carries, 66 yards, one touchdown.
Washington • 13 carries, 67 yards, one touchdown.
Washington State • 30 carries, 106 yards, one touchdown.
Stanford • 20 carries, 160 yards, two touchdowns.
Arizona • 15 carries, 68 yards, one touchdown.
USC • 25 carries, 140 yards.
UCLA • 26 carries, 211 yards, three touchdowns.
Arizona State • 18 carries, 128 yards, one touchdown.
This subject will get interesting as the season unfolds. In last September’s game at Washington State, after a bye week when Ute coach Kyle Whittingham dictated higher usage of Moss by former offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, Moss had his lowest yards-per-carry production of the season: 30 attempts, 106 yards, 3.5 average.
Those numbers may be misleading, though. Moss showed no sign of wearing down in the second half; if anything, he probably deserved more than 13 carries. The Cougars' defensive scheme was just clever and effective, even if linebacker Jahad Woods emerged with great respect for Moss.
“Zack Moss is a downhill runner, he loves to bring the physicality,” Woods said during Media Day. “With that being said, you've got to match that physicality or you're going to get run over. That's a big dude, a great back. I love playing against him.”
WSU again will provide a good test to Utah's offense, which failed to score after the opening drive of the second half in a 28-24 loss. The Cougars' visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium in late September is another checkpoint in what Moss hopes is a rewarding senior season. As Utah's fifth game, that could be the setting for Moss' becoming the program's all-time leading rusher, considering he needs 569 yards to break Eddie Johnson's 30-year-old record.
If he had stayed healthy last season, Moss likely would have moved ahead of Johnson, removing any remaining reason for him to stay in school. The timing of the injury was “crazy,” Moss said, coming three days after Huntley was injured in a loss at Arizona State.
Without their offensive stars, the Utes still managed to win their first Pac-12 South title. And now the Hallandale Trio of Florida high school teammates are reunited for one more shot at the Rose Bowl. Moss, Huntley and receiver Demari Simpkins went through Utah's commencement in May, with the promise of completing their classwork in December. They're back in jerseys No. 1, 2 and 3 and intending to maximize their last year together.
“We definitely understand that it's something very special, something we will cherish the rest of our lives,” Moss said. “We've always been tied to each other somehow, some way.”
The ending of the trio’s Utah phase could become historic, with enough handoffs.
ALL-TIME RUSHING CHART
Utah's highest career rushing-yardage totals:
3,219 • Eddie Johnson, 1984-88.
2,995 • Tony Lindsay, 1977-80.
2,773 • Devonta’e Booker, 2014-15.
2,651 • Zack Moss, 2016-18.
2,630 • Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, 1995-97.