Inside Iowa's recruitment of Ankeny Centennial's Riley Moss, arguably the state's best athlete

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

Iowa defensive back signee Riley Moss isn’t a gray-shirt. In that situation, he’d join the team in January.

He isn’t a red-shirt, either, where he’d practice as a freshman but not play in games.

Ankeny Centennial senior defensive back and North Dakota State recruit Riley Moss (5) listens to his coach during a timeout as the Lincoln Railsplitters battle the Ankeny Centennial Jaguars during the first half of the Homecoming game in Ankeny.

He’s what’s called a blue-shirt recruit.

And the standout athlete from Ankeny Centennial is used to the question by now:

What the heck is a 'blue-shirt'?

"That’s where you can pay your way for the summer semester and the fall semester, and then the scholarship starts in January," Moss said.

So, basically, he’s a preferred walk-on until he’s put on scholarship after this season?

"Basically," Moss said, smiling after winning the Class 4A 110-meter hurdles at the state track meet last weekend.

Blue-shirt, green-shirt, purple-shirt, pink-shirt — whatever. Moss is just thrilled to be wearing black and gold.

A lifelong Hawkeye fan who remembers Marvin McNutt’s game-winning slant route against Michigan State in 2009 like it was yesterday, Moss brings athleticism and versatility to a secondary that’s become known as an NFL prospect hotspot.

Moss, an All-Iowa Elite Team defensive back, anticipates playing free safety, but he’s eager to help at any position.

"I want to work hard and see what happens," said Moss, a two-star recruit ranked 13th in the state's 2018 class by the 247Sports Composite. "I’m not going to set my expectations to where, 'Oh, I’m going to play this year.' That’s a goal, for sure. But I’m just going to go in there open-minded.

"Whatever happens, happens. Wherever they need me, I’ll be."

Moss is set to join the Hawkeyes on June 9.

Not too long ago, he was planning to join North Dakota State in June.

Ankeny Centennial senior punt returner Riley Moss (5) heads for the end zone for another score as the Sioux City West Wolverines compete against the Ankeny Centennial Jaguars during the first half in a District 2 match-up on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 at Ankeny Stadium.

Moss was originally committed to the FCS juggernaut in Fargo, North Dakota. He picked the Bison last summer over offers from Northern Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota State. Iowa had started expressing interest earlier that spring, when Moss took second in the 4A 110 hurdles at state track.

No offer, though.

He was ready to get the process done before his senior football season, and he had a good friend in Fargo. Centennial co-head coach Ryan Pezzetti said NDSU was thrilled to land Moss, who finished his junior season with 37 tackles and three interceptions.


"In the beginning of my recruitment, before any offers happened, I was, like, 'Iowa is the one team that will take me away from anything,'" Moss said.

Then, with a wry smile: "And, of course, they come in late after I committed to North Dakota State."

It happened Nov. 18.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker invited Moss into his office after Iowa’s loss to Purdue. He said they were out of 2018 scholarships in the secondary, but he wanted to offer Moss a gray-shirt opportunity. (This later became a blue-shirt opportunity.)

After the meeting, Moss didn’t sent out any tweet announcing the Hawkeye offer. He wanted to call NDSU coaches and tell them the news before making anything public.

But he did send Pezzetti a text on his way out of Kinnick Stadium.

It read: "I’m going to be a Hawkeye."

"Having his lifelong goal of being a Hawkeye met? It was a no-brainer for him," Pezzetti said. "He wants to do better and he wants more. That’s the encouraging thing from a Hawkeye standpoint: He wants more and he wants to be successful as he goes forward."

Riley Moss of Ankeny Centennial wins the 4A boys 110 meter hurdles at Iowa State Track & Field Championship Saturday, May 19, 2018.

Pezzetti said Moss’ steady athletic development was appealing to the Hawkeyes. Especially to defensive line coach Reese Morgan, who was the point man for this recruitment.

Moss wasn’t the best athlete as an eighth-grader. Then, he got noticeably better as a ninth-grader, Pezzetti said. More impressive improvement in 10th grade, when he earned some varsity time. By his junior year, Moss was a Division I-caliber athlete coming into his own as a football player.

Now, as a senior, Moss is a state champion hurdler who has run the country’s third-fastest 110 hurdles high school time this year (13.85 seconds). For reference: That time would have won the college men’s 110 hurdles at the Drake Relays, and no other Iowa prep athlete ran faster than 14.26 seconds this year.

Morgan came to watch Moss at state track last weekend.

"(Morgan) latched onto Riley. He was always pretty enthusiastic about him," Pezzetti said. "Scholarships for the Division I football teams are few and far between. But when you have a kid in-state like Riley, obviously, you want him on your team."

Moss checks in at about 6 feet and 185 pounds. Pezzetti said Iowa projects him at free safety right now. But, with Centennial, Moss did a little of everything.

He returned punts and kickoffs, using his hurdles speed to log two return touchdowns this season. He was also Centennial’s second-leading receiver, hauling in six receptions for 167 yards and a touchdown.

And, of course, he logged 29 tackles and an interception against offenses that schemed away from him all year.

"Who knows what’s going to happen to him if he gets in their weight program and continues to develop as an athlete," Pezzetti said. "Just like Joel Lanning being a quarterback and now being a 240-pound linebacker — kids change.

"Wherever he plays, he's athletic enough."

Just ask the 4A state track hurdles field he beat by four-tenths of a second.

Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.