Why Zack Moss' game should quickly translate to the NFL

Zack Moss (2) and defensive back Terrell Burgess (26) were in the same recruiting class at Utah.
Zack Moss (2) and defensive back Terrell Burgess (26) were in the same recruiting class at Utah.

Incoming Utah freshman defensive back Terrell Burgess knew he was part of the seventh-best recruiting class in the country in 2016. As he stepped onto campus in Salt Lake City there was one particular player on the roster who was hard not to notice.

He could have easily been mistaken for an upperclassman, but Burgess was surprised to discover it was a member of his incoming class.

That physical specimen was Zack Moss.

"I think initially I was like, 'Wow that's a big 18-year old man right there,'" Burgess said. "He's a pretty big human. That was my initial reaction. The more I got to know him he was a normal guy. But initially I was like, 'Geez, this guy has been in the weight room since he was like two.' He was just really big, but he was a cool guy who was a normal football player."

Moss was already a strapping 5-9, 205-pound teenager. Though he did not take on the lead back role as a true freshman with senior Joe Williams ahead of him on the depth chart he found his way into 10 games and was used a good deal in short yardage situations.

"The way we looked at him we knew if we needed a few yards he would get the job done," said Burgess. "It was nice being on defense knowing if it was 3rd-and-3 we knew Zack would get the first down. So we never had to worry about that."

And even though Moss was waiting his turn behind Williams, his goals for his time at Utah were clear in his mind and were made readily known to his new running backs coach Kiel McDonald, when he arrived on campus in 2017.

"Zack wanted to be the best back to ever come through Utah," McDonald told Buffalobills.com. "He wanted to be remembered and he wanted to be counted on in all situations for this football team. I think he accomplished all of those."

Saying it and doing it are two very different things, but Moss dedicated himself to mastering every part of the game that would help ensure a high rate of production on the field.

"He just wanted to be a high-football IQ guy," said McDonald. "He wanted to know about the fronts. He wanted to know about the linebacker fits in terms of run scheme. He wanted to make sure that he had a clear understanding of blitz pickup. So he spent time learning and studying and getting on the board with all that stuff. Watching a crazy amount of film and I think that's the stuff that makes Zack special."

All Moss did as a sophomore was lead the Utes in rushing with almost 1,200 yards (1,173) with 10 touchdowns and a 5.5 yards per carry average. A knee injury held him to just under 1,100 yards rushing as a junior before Moss put the offense on his back as a senior when he earned PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors with a 1,400-yard rushing campaign and 17 total touchdowns, both of which led the conference.

"Out of all the guys who were four-year guys and played as true freshmen, he was the one who had made the greatest impact of all of us," said Burgess of a recruiting class that ultimately saw seven of their players get drafted this spring.

The question now is can he carry that kind of impact into the early stages of his NFL career, much like he did at Utah?

Most NFL analysts see a prime opportunity for Moss to get playing time as a rookie. With Frank Gore no longer on the roster to serve as that physical between the tackles back to complement Devin Singletary, many see Moss filling that role.

Naturally, he'll have to earn it over the other competition in Buffalo's offensive backfield, TJ Yeldon chief among them. Yes, Moss has a pro-ready body at 5-9, 223, but there's a more important reason McDonald feels Moss' game will capably translate to the pro game.

"Zack has been a very cerebral young man. He's very intelligent, especially when it comes to the game of football," he said. "Zack is not your average young guy. He's a football junkie. He loves watching the game. From the first time I talked to him here he understood fronts. He understood run schemes, the blocking schemes, understanding where the double team is going. Understanding how the down block formations are going to be executed in power.

"Zack is a five-tool running back. He can run around you, run you over, make you miss. He can catch the football. He can pass block. There's nothing he can't do, so you're going to be happy with the guy you got."

Scroll through to view photos of Zack Moss, Buffalo's third-round pick at number 86 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Draft coverage is presented by ECMC.

McDonald envisions early success for Moss in the NFL due partially to the similarities his game has to those of a pair of NFL backs who played for the Bills at different points of their career.

"The guy you had up there last year in his younger days, Frank Gore, he's got a little of that in him," McDonald said. "You never saw Frank Gore take shots. He just ran through tacklers. He had great feet. And also Marshawn Lynch with his toughness and physicality and his burst. Marshawn had an incredible burst and acceleration through the hole. Two guys who have been in Bills jerseys, he's kind of a mesh between those two guys."

Gore and Lynch began their NFL careers when there were still true feature backs in the league. That's more of a rarity in the league nowadays, and Buffalo is expected to have a two-pronged rushing approach. So it's difficult to see Moss putting up the kind of early career numbers that those two backs did.

But Moss' former college teammate Burgess believes the Lynch comparison is an accurate one, just with the violence that Moss brings on every carry he's given. It's clear that even Moss himself takes pride in imposing his will on his opponents.

"I think it's something where I like to set a tone from the jump," Moss said. "I like to be physical and have defenses make a lot of business decisions on making tackles against me. That's the way I approach the game. I feel like I put defenses in a lot of different predicaments with my physicality and my ability to be elusive."

Burgess, who was a third-round pick of the Rams this spring, and came off the board 18 picks after Moss, is looking forward to their Week 3 matchup with the Bills in Buffalo. It could be the first time he'll have a chance to take Moss to the ground.

"We had our scrimmages and stuff, but we needed Zack and we wanted to keep everybody healthy," said Burgess. "So when we went to camp we'd never have the ones go live. It was a tag up type thing. So I'm excited for this chance to maybe get to tackle him."

The texting between the two former teammates has already been frequent and Burgess only anticipates it will increase come Week 3. But even if Burgess gets his coveted tackle on Moss, he foresees a lot of other teams in the league struggling to slow the big back down.

"Absolutely 100 percent," he said. "I definitely expect Zack to be ready and to play to the best of his ability in the league right away. Basically pick up where he left off at Utah."

And though the current version of Zack Moss is one that should provide instant production for Buffalo's run game, in no way does his Utah running backs coach believe Moss has reached his ceiling.

"I do not think Zack Moss is maxed out by any stretch of the imagination," said McDonald. "I think he's got more growth to realize. I really, really do. I'm looking forward to seeing that growth and how the Bills coaching staff pulls that out of him. I know he's got a really good running back coach up there. To me he's only scratching the surface."

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