Another under-the-radar recruiting steal? Riley Moss 'doesn't shy away from a challenge.'
IOWA CITY, Ia. — While he was speaking to the Iowa football team Friday, honorary captain Jim Caldwell told the players that their teammates would be their best friends 40 years down the line.
Later, during a special teams meeting, tight ends/special teams coordinator LeVar Woods echoed the same message: Your teammates now are teammates for life.
That's when Jake Gervase felt someone bump his knee.
He looked over at Riley Moss, sitting next to him, who looked at Gervase with a mock-sentimental, goofy smile on his face.
"He likes to have fun," Gervase said of Moss with a laugh. "He likes to joke around."
Gervase has gotten to know the true freshman defensive back well. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker assigned him to be Moss' mentor, of sorts. They room together during road trips and before home games at the team hotel. They’re together during meetings and during meals. They talk football while hanging out in the room at night — about the checks they’ll make on Saturday, the different calls they’ll hear.
More than most, Gervase knows how hard Moss has worked and studied to earn his starting job in a secondary known for producing NFL talent.
"He’s a tough kid," Gervase said. "He’s done a great job taking advantage of the opportunity he’s gotten. He’s still got a lot to learn, in terms of our defensive goals and what we’re going to be in in certain situations, but he’s a guy that’s taking advantage of that opportunity — he’s playing hard; he’s playing fast; and he doesn't shy away from a challenge."
After getting special teams reps through Iowa’s first four games, Moss started in place of Michael Ojemudia against Minnesota. The Gophers picked on him early and beat him for a touchdown to cut Iowa’s lead to 14-7.
Moss quickly settled in, though. He hauled in two interceptions en route to Big Ten Conference freshman of the week honors.
The Ankeny native has shown that, so far, he isn't a flash in the pan — much like fellow freshman Julius Brents. Moss started again against Indiana, piling up six tackles. In another start Saturday against Maryland, he amassed three tackles and two impressive pass break-ups.
"He's been competing. Even in that first ballgame (against Minnesota), he really competed," head coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters on Saturday. "They hurt him on a couple, but the way he hung in there and played well in that second half up in Minnesota — to me, that's who he is, and that's what we've seen him do in practice since we started back in August.
"He's a guy that just goes hard. He's got a really high motor, and he really likes playing the game. He seems to really like competition, too. Today was another good day for him."
Perhaps Moss’ best play Saturday came early in the second quarter. He had single coverage on the outside, and Maryland tested him on a deep ball on third-and-17. Moss stuck stride-for-stride with his man and broke up what could have been a big, momentum-turning play.
On the Iowa radio call, play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin said: "How about that? Hanging the young freshman out there in since coverage."
Color commentator Ed Podolak replied: "He’s got the goods."
"No stage is too big for him," Amani Hooker added after the game. "He’s just making plays. That’s what he does."
Moss wasn’t expected to have this type of early prominent role. Remember: He's on scholarship now, but he entered the Hawkeye program as a blue-shirt. (Yes, that’s a real thing — basically, when a player can practice with the team during the fall but doesn’t get put on scholarship until the spring.)
Originally committed to North Dakota State, Moss flipped to Iowa in December after a late offer. But in a secondary class that featured names like Brents, D.J. Johnson and Dallas Craddeith, it was easy to forget the late-addition in-state kid who was considered a two-star recruit.
Moss turned heads right away in summer practice. Gervase said he knew the freshman could make an impact when he saw him play in 7-on-7 drills.
Good hips, Gervase remembers. A quick twitch.
"Freaky athlete," he said. "The more reps he gets, the faster he’s playing and the more plays he’s making."
Moss stood out as a high-level athlete at Ankeny Centennial. He recorded 29 tackles and an interception for Centennial's Class 4A state semifinalist football team last season. In track, Moss dominated the 110-meter hurdles all year, taking first place at the Drake Relays and the state meet. He ran a 13.85, which was the third-fastest time of any high school athlete in the country at the time. He was named to the All-Iowa Elite Teams for football and track and field, and he was an All-Iowa Athlete of the Year finalist.
Still, none of that translated to a vaunted college football recruiting profile.
The result? Iowa might have found another in-state, under-the-radar steal.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.