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How Riley Moss joined Tremon Smith to become a dominant gunner duo for the Denver Broncos' special teams

Henry Chisholm Avatar
December 10, 2023

If you didn’t know Riley Moss was an Iowan, it’d only take one trip around the Broncos’ locker room to learn.

Before the season, the Broncos’ rookie cornerback found some “Riley Moss” trading cards from his Hawkeye days. He put them in the nameplates of some of his teammates’ lockers, including fellow Hawkeye Josey Jewell.

“That lasted about 10 minutes, maybe,” Moss told DNVR.

The card in linebacker Justin Strnad’s locker didn’t last long either.

“He took it out because he’s a fun hater,” Moss said.

Months later, the last remaining card is in backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s locker.

Iowa football is a unique program. The Hawkeyes finished the season 10-3 this season, despite placing 130th out of 133 FBS teams in points per game. Tory Taylor, Iowa’s punter, is the team’s star. He won the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the best punter in college football.

“Tory’s unbelievable,” Moss said. “Iowa, they’re predominantly really good in their defense and special teams.”

With a background in Iowa football, it should be no surprise that Moss has found a role on the Broncos’ special teams units. He played all four phases in his freshman year, but by his senior year he was only on the punt return team.

The third-round rookie was a gameday inactive in the first two games of the year, but he’s been active in all but one game since.

“Riley caught on pretty fast,” veteran special teamer Tremon Smith told DNVR. “We knew with his speed that he was gonna be good on the outside for us on special teams, so we just stayed on him and taught him the ins and outs early and he got on it pretty good.”

Smith, 27, realized when he played for the Colts in 2020 that his path to a long career in the NFL was to become a special teams stud. The former third-round pick ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash ahead of the 2018 draft, displaying the tools necessary to be dominant in the game’s third phase. The Broncos brought Smith in to be their special teams ace this offseason.

Smith keeps an eye on the top special teamers in the league. With Saints defensive back J.T. Gray on the sideline this season, there’s room for a new face in his list of top-three special teamers.

“I like me, Hardee and Riley Moss.”

(Hardee is Justin Hardee of the New York Jets, the AFC’s special teams representative in the Pro Bowl last season.)

Smith might be biased, but he and Moss backed up what he said against the Texans last Sunday when Smith lined up as the left gunner on the punt team and Moss lined up as the right gunner.

The Broncos punted the ball six times. Smith raced down the field to force a fair catch on two of them. Moss forced a fair catch on two others. One punt went out of bounds. The other was returned for a seven-yard gain.

“It’s either you double me and he’ll go make [the play], or you double him and I’ll go make it,” Smith said. “You try to stack us, we’ll go meet each other down there. So it’s basically pick your poison, who you want to beat you.”

Tremon Smith warms up for a game against the Chiefs. He made his self-proclaimed best play of the season when he made a tackle on a kickoff at the 15-yard line. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season, the Broncos have forced 29 fair catches. Only two teams have forced more.

Moss credits Smith for setting the tone.

“He’s a stud. He’s definitely a leader in our special teams unit,” Moss said. “He’s just tough and physical and faster than hell. That’s why he’s had so much success.”

Moss was a special athlete as a high schooler in Iowa. His 13.85-second time in the 110-meter hurdles won him a state championship and set a new state record. He finished in the top 10 nationally.

But he admits that Smith is faster, and he’s had to find his own techniques to be productive.

“There’s other things that make me get open and down the field,” Moss said. “Being quick at the line, using my hands because I’ve got a little bit of length. Everybody’s got their own niche and how they can be successful.”

Moss is also carving out a role in the Broncos’ defense… albeit slowly.

He didn’t see the field outside of special teams for the first 10 weeks of the season, but he’s been the Broncos’ dime defender in each of the past three games. That job has given him three defensive snaps per game.

“You have to stay locked in,” Moss said of his defensive role. “As a corner, obviously you’re getting a bunch of plays in a row, whereas [as the dime] now you’re in three or four a game.”

Moss still hasn’t seen much action. He made one tackle and hasn’t been targeted in coverage.

But he’s enjoyed learning how to play in the interior of the defense after playing almost exclusively on the boundary in college. He only moved inside when he was following a specific receiver in man coverage.

“I’ve grown a lot at corner because I’ve been playing dime, just understanding the interior of the zones and that type of stuff,” he said.

Despite the limited role, Moss isn’t impatient.

“The biggest thing is the best player is going to play, and that’s how it should be,” Moss said. “If we’re winning, I’m happy. I’m going to own the role that I’m given. We’ve just gotta keep rolling and hopefully make the playoffs.”

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