Renck: In Year 2, Broncos’ Riley Moss embraces first shot to prove he can start at CB opposite Pat Surtain II

Riley Moss knows all about big shots. He spent part of his offseason watching Caitlin Clark’s games in person.

“I don’t know if she’s the GOAT of Iowa sports,” Moss said. “But she is my GOAT.”

Moss gets his chance to add to Iowa’s decorated list of professional athletes in Broncos training camp next month. After a rookie season undermined by injury, the former Hawkeyes star will compete with Levi Wallace and Damarri Mathis for the Broncos’ starting cornerback job.

Tuesday, Moss showed why he remains firmly in the mix, breaking up two passes, including one intended for receiver Phillip Dorsett. His highlights offer a stark contrast to last season, when he played only 23 snaps after missing training camp because of sports-hernia core surgery.

“It’s nice to be able to come out and not think about my injury or getting injured or any of that. I can just go out and play football. It (stunk) missing camp last year because I was behind the eight-ball,” Moss said. “I am looking forward to this opportunity.”

There is history involved, though Moss talks about it only when asked. Moss is attempting to become the first white starting cornerback in the NFL since Cincinnati’s Kevin Kaesviharn in 2003.

Moss does not draw motivation from this, but rather from his past. He grew up being overlooked because, well, he grew late. As a sophomore, he was around 5-foot-7 and skinny, not exactly attributes that left scouts asking Siri for directions to Ankeny Centennial High School, 20 minutes outside of Des Moines.

“I love being the underdog,” Moss said. “I love when people doubt me. It’s not that I want to prove people wrong. But I remind myself that there are people who believe I don’t belong here.”

Moss was a two-star recruit in football. He committed to North Dakota State after receiving no Power Five offers. But it became clear during his senior season that he was a late bloomer. Even as he reached 6 feet, Moss lost none of his speed, winning state in the 110-meter hurdles a few months after setting an Iowa record with a time of 13.85 seconds at the Drake Relays.

The Hawkeyes called with an opportunity to walk on. Five games into his freshman season, Moss entered the starting lineup. Minnesota immediately turned its attention to him.

“They threw deep like five or six times,” Moss said. “I knew they would go at me. But I got two picks that game.”

The Broncos believed in Moss enough to trade up for him, sacrificing a much-needed draft pick. The vision for Moss was to eventually morph him into a starter. And unlike last year, a vacancy exists.

Cornerback is a premium position. And the importance for the Broncos is amplified because they need someone to provide stability to pair with All-Pro Patrick Surtain II. He turns opposing receivers into Chick-Fil-A: They are never open on Sunday.

As such, teams largely avoid him.

“Obviously, Patrick is one of the best corners in football. If you are playing opposite of him you are going to get most of the targets. That’s part of it,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “It’s about having a guy who is resilient and can work through adversity during games and kind of invite being attacked.”

This summarizes Moss’ college career. He became a playmaker in his debut, was benched after a poor showing vs. Purdue, then regained his spot with a vengeance, delivering five of his career 11 interceptions in his final two seasons.

Moss boasts good size and strength. At Iowa, he earned a reputation for hitting more like a safety, showing physicality against the run. He also runs a 4.45 40-yard dash.

“He’s smart. I’d say you feel his length at corner. He has really good transitional skills,” coach Sean Payton said. “He’s picking up the technique, and he has versatility outside, in.”

Joseph explained that Moss can make things look easy, that he puts himself in a comfortable position. That largely went unseen last season. Moss did not play on special teams until the Week 3, 70-20 debacle at Miami and first logged defensive snaps in Week 10 against the Vikings.

“That Miami game was an insane welcome to the NFL moment,” Moss said.

The past calendar year has taught him the importance of leverage in coverage, using his eyes and “knowing where my help is at.” He is attempting to accelerate his development by, among other things, tracking Surtain.

“When he’s out there my eyeballs are on him, no matter what. When I watch him, it’s a master class,” Moss said. “I am always asking him questions. He’s unbelievable.”

Moss has ground to cover. He must show he is reliable in man coverage after profiling as a zone corner. Even his progress this offseason came with a caveat: No one wins a job in June.

The evaluation of the open cornerback spot begins in earnest in training camp with Surtain acknowledging, “They are all talented, all capable of playing well on Sunday. I look forward to when that decision is made.” The derby is pushing Wallace, Mathis and Moss.

Thinking about those nights watching Clark for the Hawkeyes, Moss is ready to take his best shot.

“The competition is good for our team. It’s only going to make ’Marri better, it’s only going to make Levi better, and it’s only going to make me better,” Moss said. “It’s really iron sharpens iron. It’s going to be fun.”

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