Leistikow: Riley Moss ready for the spotlight in final year with Iowa football

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Riley Moss graduated from the University of Iowa in mid-December, with a degree in sports management.

“Three and a half (years),” the Ankeny native said. “Who would have thought?”

Moss clutched that diploma a few weeks before Iowa’s Citrus Bowl matchup versus Kentucky. At that time, his graduation felt like the latest checkpoint on a track that had him playing one more game as a Hawkeye and then heading to the NFL. Moss had recently been named the Big Ten Conference’s Tatum-Woodson defensive back of the year, and his knee was close to 100% after a midseason injury that caused him to miss 3½ games.

But as each day passed and Moss was confronted with a stay-or-go decision, he was losing sleep. That included on New Year's Eve, hours before Iowa’s 20-17 loss to Kentucky.

MORE: How does Iowa's offense break out? Hawkeye receivers could be the key

He and fellow senior Jack Koerner stayed up past 1 a.m. in their Orlando hotel, discussing their future. The close friends had been planning to make their decision together and were leaning toward signing with the same agent and staying in Florida to train.

But Moss was having second thoughts.

“The hardest decision of my entire life,” Moss said. “ … It was tough to focus on the things I need to focus on.”

Riley Moss will be a focal point of Iowa's 2022 defense as the Big Ten's reigning defensive back of the year.

Ultimately, the two friends realized they were on different paths. Koerner, an accomplished safety for the Hawkeyes, entered the NFL Draft. Moss, with an extra year of eligibility made available to him due to the COVID-19 pandemic season of 2020, decided to return to Iowa City.

Consulting with current NFL players helped him see the hard-core business side of football at the next level, and Moss' fun-loving personality led him back to the joy of being a home-grown Hawkeye. 

“The NFL will always be there for me,” Moss said. “I figured when I’m dead in the grave, I’m not bringing the money with me, I’m bringing the memories. I enjoy playing football at the University of Iowa. ... I figure those memories are going to last a lifetime.”

Three months later, Moss sure seems happy about the decision to return.

He was extremely jovial and energetic — perhaps aided by the cup of black coffee he brought to the interviews — and willing to candidly answer anything on any topic.

What’s he doing now in school?

Moss' class load as a “non-degree seeking undergraduate" includes one called “Acting for Success” (focused on public speaking and interactions), another called “Human Sexuality” and another centered on poetry.

“I’m broadening my horizons,” he said with a smile. “It’s very interesting.”

Any NIL movement?

Inexplicably, no. Moss is miffed how in the name, image and likeness era of college athletics, he hasn’t been contacted by Ankeny-based Casey’s General Stores. Moss has been a staunch social-media defender of Casey’s pizza.

“Casey’s, kind of letting me down,” he said. “Crazy.”

How would he perform in an NFL Combine setting?

A former track and field star hurdler at Ankeny Centennial, Moss promised he would dazzle in the 40-yard dash — something Iowa doesn’t test.

“If you give me three months to train for a 40, it’s going to be awesome,” Moss said. “That was the only reason I was kind of excited to leave, to see what I could run in the 40.”

Moss confessed he was afraid of talking to the media in the past. As a true freshman, he was excoriated by fans following a tough game at Purdue. Over time, he’s become comfortable in his own skin, and it shows.

Moss has a big personality and is always excited to engage the fans and celebrate after big plays. That type of bravado often pays off. Yes, he occasionally gets burned with more of a gambling style than defensive coordinator Phil Parker prefers, but he has become a big-play defensive back for the Hawkeyes.

Moss currently is tied for 11th in Iowa history with 10 career interceptions and his 293 interception-return yards rank second in school history (to Tyler Sash’s 392). He was a second-team all-American by the Football Writers Association of America last season and is likely to be included on major preseason all-America teams.

“That (outside attention) can affect how you play mentally. I started to figure that out early in my career,” Moss said. “I think that’s why I’ve excelled, because I kind of forgot about the outside noise and played football.”

Moss isn't afraid to share he's embracing a lighter academic load. That ability to focus on football was something that he saw help teammate Matt Hankins, who opted to return for a fifth (COVID) year in 2021. Hankins set the example each day of how to practice and how to prepare, becoming a trusted team leader.

“That’s kind of my goal,” Moss said. “I want to do things like Matt Hankins did. … I’m on the Matt Hankins plan, basically.”

Moss has taken a lot of reps at Iowa’s “cash” (slot defender) position in its 4-2-5 defense during spring practice, something that he thinks would prepare him for the NFL. However, he said Parker prefers him at cornerback (where he’s started 25 games at Iowa), and that is probably where he’s staying.

Staying … that’s the key word for Moss.

His staying at Iowa no doubt puts him in the spotlight. Based on his nearly 30 minutes with reporters Tuesday, he seems built for it. And he's enjoying it.

“I absolutely think I made the right decision,” Moss said, “and I’m excited for this year.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.