116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — As the 2021 football season came closer to wrapping up, Riley Moss was metaphorically “staring down the barrel of a gun.”
The cornerback had to decide whether to stay for his COVID-19 year of eligibility or pursue his NFL dreams. He chose the former.
The decision was a “real last-second deal,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said in February.
“I really thought he was heading the other direction,” Ferentz said.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker noticed the weight on Moss’ shoulders as his ultimatum loomed closer.
“You could see the stress probably the week of the bowl game,” Parker said Wednesday.
Before traveling to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl, Moss said the odds of him pursuing an NFL career was north of 50 percent. But four days after the bowl game, that changed to 100 percent staying.
“It’s kind of good in theory when you think about it — ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to leave for the NFL, it’s going to be cool’ — until you're staring down the barrel of a gun,” Moss said. “What that actually means and the things you need to be prepared for and stuff like that.”
While Parker was happy the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year did return, some of the why behind it especially stuck with him.
“I was excited to the reason why he came back,” Parker said. “He knew what he had to do.”
Parker and Moss have worked on what the longtime defensive coordinator calls a “point-of-attack break.”
“Took all of his plays that he was at the point of attack, and he kind of had to look at them and evaluate them and see how he did,” Parker said. “It’s either plus or minus.”
Moss said he’s planning to work on his man coverage with the extra year in Iowa City.
“In the NFL, they spread you out and they’re running all over the place,” Moss said, “so that’s one thing I think I can grow on a little bit.”
Parker prefers the 6-foot-1 defensive back at cornerback, Moss said, as opposed to the hybrid cash position although he still has taken his “fair share of cash reps in practice.”
Moss is aware of the risk of a potential injury in 2022 derailing his NFL ambitions, but he’s “not really looking” at that factor.
“There’s always a risk in everything you do,” Moss said. “I could get in my car and get in a car crash and die.”
Moss already graduated after the fall 2021 semester, so he’s a non-degree-seeking undergraduate student. His spring classes include human sexuality, acting for success and poetry.
“I’m broadening my horizons,” Moss said. “It’s very interesting.”
The Ankeny native said acting for success has been his favorite of the semester because of the public speaking aspect of it.
“I've really struggled with speaking to be honest with you,” Moss said. “In high school, I looked back at some interviews and I’m like, ‘Dude, are you serious? Like that’s awful.’ So I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Leading a secondary experiencing some change
Now Parker is expecting Moss to be "one of our leaders“ in the 2022 secondary.
It’ll be a group replacing three starters — Dane Belton, Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner — but the Hawkeyes also have some relatively experienced options to fill those spots.
Between Moss and cornerbacks Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts, Iowa essentially has three capable starting options.
Harris started seven games in 2021 as the secondary dealt with a plethora of injuries. Ferentz said last year the staff considered Roberts as a third starter behind Hankins and Moss.
Cedar Rapids native Quinn Schulte is the starting free safety and Sebastian Castro is slotted in the cash spot on the Hawkeyes’ first depth chart of 2022. The Hawkeyes have some other options, though.
Parker said Cooper DeJean, who was listed as a second-team cornerback going into spring practices, has been getting reps at the cash position.
“He’s done a good job,” Parker said.
Former five-star recruit Xavier Nwankpa enrolled early and could be a candidate for early playing time at safety in 2022. Parker has been complimentary of Nwankpa’s approach at Iowa, especially for someone with “so much expectations.”
“There's a lot of pressure on the kid coming in,” Parker said. “All I've seen from him so far was somebody that's trying to get better as a player. … He actually wants to come in and watch the film with me and sit there and say, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’”
Iowa also may move starting strong safety Kaevon Merriweather to free safety or the cash position.
“Wherever (Parker) needs me to plug in and play, I think I'll be able to do that for him,” Merriweather said.
“I just want to play ball.”
The junior safety hasn’t been playing in spring practices, but is taking “mental reps” and coaching the younger defensive backs.
The secondary is coming off a year where it grabbed an FBS-best 25 interceptions — six more than the next best Power Five school.
As for Moss, when the time comes to pursue his NFL dreams, he’s confident in how he’ll do.
“If you give me three months to train for a 40, it’s going to be awesome,” Moss said. “That was the only reason I was kind of excited to leave is to see what I'd run in the 40.”
No. 33 first has at least 12 more college football games first before showing that 40, though.
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