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Iowa sophomore Riley Moss was subbed in for Matt Hankins, who was benched early in the third quarter, and immediately recorded an interception. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The day after it happened, Jack Koerner sat next to his CIML foe turned Hawkeye teammate and did his best to process the update. Injuries and football are linked at the core, but no one expects to receive such dreary news so soon.

All Riley Moss did was smile back at his former high school rival. With his hip having been nearly dislocated just hours prior — a mere half into his sophomore season — Moss calmly assured Koerner he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I asked Riley how long he was going to be out, because I sit right next to him in our team meetings,” recalled Koerner, a Dowling Catholic alum. “And he said five, six weeks or so. That disheartened me a little bit. But he didn’t seem to be down in the dumps.

“Riley said, ‘I’ll be back.’”

Well, here he is.

After a cornerback cameo two weeks ago against Penn State, Moss announced his full-fledged return to Iowa’s secondary with authority versus Purdue. The Ankeny Centennial product’s timely insertion and interception completed the circuitous return to relevance Moss promised Koerner seven weeks ago.

No longer hampered by back-end injuries, No. 19 Iowa (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten Conference) again has the luxury of secondary maneuvering when it visits Northwestern at 11 a.m. Saturday. Moss’ solid relief outing has him back on the depth chart, bracketed as a co-starter with cornerback Matt Hankins. The in-state sophomore is back healthy and is trending the right way.

“It was really nothing new for him,” safety Geno Stone said. “When we’re in the film room, he’s always asking questions still — making sure he’s still locked in on everything. Even out there at practice, he’s watching us and asking questions. I knew he was staying in the game, always trying to think about the game. He never really gave up, even though he was sidelined. He got right into it when he came back and picked up where he left off.”

Given the circumstances, it would’ve been easy for Moss to fade.

Clawing back to the starting job he lost a season ago was already an uphill climb when Iowa kicked off Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio). Veterans Michael Ojemudia and Hankins had the corner spots locked down, while D.J. Johnson got the early nod at the Hawkeyes’ cash position. Moss would have to make do on special teams until something emerged.

That plan crumbled less than two minutes into the second half. A simple punt coverage turned dismal in a moment’s notice, leaving Moss hobbling to the sideline with a cloudy future.

“I was pretty close to dislocating my hip,” Moss said after the Purdue win, “and that would’ve been the entire season. I’m just fortunate that didn’t happen.”

The four-to-six-week absence may have been a fortunate prognosis, but Moss’ mental fortitude still went under the microscope as he watched the Hawkeyes continue in street clothes. It didn’t help that secondary bodies fell left and right in the ensuing weeks — a situation Moss could’ve mitigated if he were healthy.

There were frustrating times, no doubt. Yet, the perseverance and dedication that propelled Moss from a 2-star recruit with scholarship uncertainty to a first-team Hawkeye shown through during this trying time.

“Being out five weeks or so — I was on the sideline being supportive — but it was tough watching my teammates,” Moss said, “because I like competing and playing football.” 

When it comes to handling injuries, Ferentz has witnessed the gamut of emotions throughout his lengthy tenure. He’s seen some wilt under the frustration and never return to peak form. He’s also watched impressively as players morph disappointment into comeback fuel.

It can be a tough line to walk when the body fails. Moss handled it as best he could.

“The hardest part about injuries to me are the individuals affected,” Ferentz said. “Boy, there's so many different levels of it. The tough thing about football is you only get 12 games that are guaranteed. You have such a limited amount of opportunities to go out and compete. You work 12 months a year to be ready for those moments.

“It's tough for them. Can't say enough about the mental toughness it takes. Takes a lot of teamwork. Certainly, the teammates of our guys are really supportive. Then the unsung heroes are the trainers. … There’s a lot of mental work that goes on there. Those are hours when they're off on their own in a quiet place, usually. A pretty small group of people looking at that. There's a real psychology around it. Riley did a really good job.”

Surviving those lonely weeks has put Moss in position to end the year convincingly. More solid efforts like last Saturday’s, and he could ultimately supplant Hankins in the starting lineup. A chance to shine awaits against a Northwestern attack that is the Big Ten’s worst in passing yards per game (124).

“Riley didn’t check out mentally whatsoever,” Koerner said, “so it was really good to see him come back and not miss a beat.”

Just like Moss said he would. 

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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