SALT LAKE CITY — As the foundation of the Utah offense in 2017, it may seem running back Zack Moss wouldn’t need to do much more than more of the same to help the Utes succeed in 2018.
But that’s not the way he sees it.
It’s not the way his teammates or coaches see it.
If 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns was a great season, then the junior from Florida has the chance to be something truly special.
Offensive lineman Jackson Barton said the team’s leadership council sat down with Moss in the offseason to let him know how much more they thought he could achieve.
“We told him that his practice habits had to be a little bit better,” Barton said. “He didn’t take offense to that; he’s really taken to heart. We told him, ‘You can be the dude this year. And if you practice like the dude, you’re going to be the dude.’ I’ve seen him taking that mentality, and it’s helped him tremendously. I love blocking for that dude.”
Moss is so important to what the Utes will try to accomplish this year that he’s not going to participate in much of Utah’s live practice sessions this year. He said that bothers him some of the time, but he tries to focus on all the other aspects of the game – besides just making life painful for would-be tacklers – that he can work on during fall camp.
“I’ve been working with the young guys, working on individual stuff,” he said. “The game is more mental than physical.”
Moss’ coaches and teammates said the reserved but friendly young man has done something a lot of naturally talented athletes can’t do – pushed himself to improve after an already impressive season.
“Too many (athletes) fall into that trap,” said cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, of the mentality that players with natural ability settle for starting and/or contributing without real sacrifice. “They think, ‘I’m good already. I’ve met my expectations, and maybe more than other people thought I would do.’ But that’s not good enough. That’s still not enough, and I think he’s starting to recognize that.”
Moss made it clear he was special from his first season with Utah when he averaged 83.7 yards in his first three starts. Last year's performance was enough to earn him attention and accolades from other coaches and the media. Moss has been named to the Doak Walker Award watch list for the nation’s best running back.
The former Hallandale High standout’s most obvious strength is, well, his strength.
He attributes his commitment to getting stronger each season to his ability to – so far – withstand serious injuries, as well as, wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
“I spend more time in there than I do on the field or anywhere else,” he said. “Sometimes more than my own house.”
Moss said he feels he’s improved his game and abilities in every way he can.
“I’ve gotten smarter, faster and stronger,” he said. “I’m just trying to evolve every day.”
He doesn’t set yardage goals for himself. He simply sets his standards based on what the team needs from him in the moment.
“I’m just trying to get better, one play at a time,” he said. “I’m not trying to put labels on it. Whatever our team needs, that’s the label I’ll have.”
His commitment to increasing his speed and strength may eclipse just how more cerebral he’s become.
“He is constantly studying, constantly watching film, constantly on the board learning how to draw up the plays, to talk about it in football language, not just player language, but coach talk,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald. “The biggest jump for Zack is that he’s just become more immersed in the game, becoming more knowledgeable about fronts and schemes and defenses.”
McDonald said having a running back who sees the game like a coach can take a team to the next level.
“That is big,” he said. “You have to have the ability to communicate. My eyes have to match their feet.”
But it isn’t just his own mind and body that Moss is trying to push to new heights. He’s trying to shed his natural introverted nature, at least some of the time, to be able to help the new running backs competing to take some of those carries from him.
“I’m not a very vocal guy, but I just try to come out here and be the best player, be consistent every day, and hopefully the guys see that standard and try to compete with that,” Moss said. “We’re all cool with each other. You’d think nine guys from totally different places, different backgrounds, would have some conflict. But everyone is trying to be a better person, a better player no matter where they are on the depth chart. They don’t care about that. They’re just trying to be better. We all love each other.”
McDonald said the running back room is intensely competitive and remarkably friendly.
“We’ve gotten better,” he said. “We’re a much more competitive room compared to last year. We’ve gotten more talented, and the competition is making everybody have to step up.”
And, Moss adds, having nine or 10 capable running backs only makes the Utes tougher as a whole.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “So if you’ve got nine guys who can run like that, it’s going to make us that much better.”