Zack Moss set or tied eight program records at Utah, including for career rushing yards, touchdowns and carries.
But it was something he didn’t do that caught the attention of Bills General Manager Brandon Beane.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he had zero fumbles,” Beane said in April, detailing Moss’ best traits after selecting the running back in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. “You like the ball security.”
Moss, in fact, did fumble last season.
He also lost one of three fumbles as a junior in 2018, according to game logs kept by the PAC-12. Moss lost his only two fumbles as a sophomore in 2017, according to FoxSports.com.
That’s unofficially six fumbles and four lost in three seasons as a starter. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in each while handling a hefty workload, a total of 693 combined touches. That’s a fumble rate of .008 – or 0.8% – which would rank among the NFL's best backs.
“A lot of it is a sense of awareness,” Moss said during a recent interview with The Buffalo News. “The people who make you fumble the most are the people you don’t see, so just having a sense of awareness, always having two hands on the ball, bracing for contact, I think those are the most important things. And not being a very loose ball carrier.
“It’s something I have to continue to get better at over the years. To go out there and not turn the ball over when you have the ball in your hands, that’s the most important thing to teams.”
— GMFB (@gmfb) May 15, 2020
A comparative sampling of career fumbling rates: Ezekiel Elliott, 1.1%; Melvin Gordon, 1.1%; Todd Gurley, 0.9%; Derrick Henry, 0.8%; and Le’Veon Bell, 0.4%.
Devin Singletary fumbled four times in 180 touches last year, a relatively high 2.2%.
Frank Gore didn’t fumble once in 179 touches.
“When you talk about good ball security guys, they’re strong, they’ve got great form, they’ve got great palm pressure on the ball, but they have a purpose when they run with the ball,” Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald said, “and that is to make sure they stand up with the ball, as well.
“Zack is obviously very strong, first and foremost. His pad level, his leverage, and he’s not swinging the ball all the time. On contact, he understands having two hands on the football, standing up with the football, giving the ball to the ref, those type of little things that we do here at the University of Utah go a long way.”
Moss said he knows it’s critical to remain mindful of fundamentals and proper technique.
“The wrist above the elbow is very important,” Moss said, “just as it is with bracing for contact and having two hands on the ball and keeping it close to you, having your elbow down, all those fundamentals play a very, very important part in just protecting the ball, and then that leads to you being a guy that doesn’t turn the ball over.”
And that leads to opportunity.
Moss had 4,067 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns on 712 carries (5.7 yards per touch), and 685 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 66 catches in four seasons at Utah.
McDonald said he emphasized ball security drills and graded performance in practices throughout Moss’ college career.
“When we first started out, we had a ball security board,” McDonald said, “so he gets a report, a percentage, of how he’s carrying the ball, whether it’s low, the wrong arm, if he’s doing it correctly, if he fumbled on that particular rep. Everything is graded. Then we took it a step further this last season and we had some repercussions when we didn’t have great ball security, whether ‘SEAL sits’ (wall sits) or things of that nature, some running … so it gets ingrained into them, that, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do SEAL sits today because I had three bad carries.’ ”
Last season, Moss lost his only fumble in a 21-3 victory against Arizona State on Oct. 19.
“He caught a screen pass on the left side, went for 45 yards and got torqued in an odd position,” McDonald said. “It was just so odd, because he got twisted around and his knee got underneath him and it was a weird deal. It wasn’t like a contact fumble. But yes, it was one time, and it was on an explosive play.”
Moss was not hurt on the play.
It had been more than a year since his previous lost fumble.
In 2018, Moss fumbled three times, losing one in a 17-6 victory against NIU on Sept. 8. He also fumbled against USC and Arizona State.
In 2017, Moss fumbled twice and lost both.
“He got progressively better,” McDonald said, “and I think he’s going to be just fine. It’s not going to be a deal that happens on contact. That’s not what it’s going to be. It’s always been when he’s breaking off a defender and it’s about to be a big, big play, and something just odd happens. It’s not one of those deals where it’s like, ‘Oh, man, he got hit by a linebacker and coughed it up.’ That’s not going to happen.”
Much of being a successful pro is learning – and moving on – from mistakes.
In this regard, Moss is “solid as bricks,” McDonald said.
“We always talk about going to the next play,” McDonald said. “We ain’t got time for that. So he’s not going to be somebody that sulks or anything like that. If anything, he responds. He takes it up to another level. If a play didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, he’s going to take it to another level. That’s for sure.”
For all of his production and accomplishments, Moss was happy to learn that Beane considered ball security among his top attributes.
“That’s one of the better compliments that a back can receive, someone saying that they don’t fumble a lot,” Moss said. “It’s a tough thing to do when you look at how many carries I’ve had over my career at Utah. It’s not one of the things that jumps out to people, but it’s definitely one of the most important things, because if you’re a guy that turns the ball over a lot, you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to go out there and have that many carries and break records."
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