USC's Miller Moss waited patiently for his shot. Now he has it

MILLER MOSS WAS driving back to Los Angeles from San Diego on Dec. 28 when his phone rang. It was Lincoln Riley.

The 12 hours before that call couldn’t have gone much better for Moss. After spending three years as USC’s backup quarterback — two in Caleb Williams’ shadow — and only attempting 59 passes, Moss was finally given the chance to take center stage with the NFL-bound Williams opting out of the 2023 DIRECTV Holiday Bowl. Moss didn’t just make the most of his first-ever college start — he made history. The Los Angeles native threw for 372 yards on 33 attempts and a USC bowl-record six touchdowns while leading the Trojans to a 42-28 season-ending win.

“I really just wanted to play freely going into that game,” Moss told ESPN last month. “I didn’t want to have any regrets. Whatever happened, I wanted to go out there and let it rip.”

Adopting that mindset wasn’t easy for Moss. The season was not technically over yet and, in the lead-up to the bowl game, there were already plenty of rumors about which quarterback USC would be taking in the transfer portal to replace Williams.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult to filter that out and just focus on the game,” Moss said. “And I told Lincoln and Kliff [Kingsbury] that.”

Just a few weeks before, Riley had stood in front of a microphone after early signing day and told the assembled media that the program would potentially be looking to add not just one, but two quarterbacks from the transfer portal. After the Holiday Bowl, however, Riley’s outlook on USC’s quarterback room appeared to change. That’s when he called Moss.

“He was like, ‘Hey, great job. I just want to let you know we’re not going to take an older transfer,'” Moss said. “I think Lincoln really wanted to see me play and then was going to make a decision because I think he wanted to see if what happened in the game confirmed his practice evaluation.”

Moss is well aware Riley’s call did not mean the quarterback position at USC is automatically his, but it came with some validation Moss had been waiting for his whole college career.

Moss had many doubts during his first three years in college. He had conversations about transferring to a program where he could play right away. But in the end, he would always decide to remain at USC. In the age of the portal, Moss’s story is a rarity. He stayed and developed, and it paid off.

Ahead of USC’s spring game, Moss — who still has two years of eligibility left — is still relishing the Holiday Bowl performance while trying to ensure it is only the beginning of his time as the Trojans’ starter. “It was one of the greatest feelings of my life, but I felt like I had lived that moment so many times in my head already,” Moss said. “I had visualized that moment in my head of me being able to show the world that I can do this.”

TWELVE YEARS AGO, a 10-year-old Miller Moss found himself in a peculiar place: inside the Oct. 15 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The article by Ben McGrath, titled “Head Start,” focused on longtime quarterback guru Steve Clarkson and the development of football players — specifically quarterbacks — from very young ages. Though Miller’s family was not athletically inclined, Miller had taken a great interest in football from a young age, and he started playing in Clarkson’s spring football league for toddlers.

Miller’s father, Eric Moss, is quoted in the piece discussing how his son’s upbringing wasn’t immediately focused on sports but rather on using his interests outside the sport to create a more holistic approach to development.

“I really think a lot of this is an accident,” Eric said in the story. “Whatever you put in front of him he kind of likes.”

Eric knew from an early age his son gravitated toward activities that stimulated his brain. At the time of the New Yorker piece, Eric already had Miller involved in writing camps, math competitions and chess. Miller also drew football plays on his laptop, just for fun. In Miller’s elementary school yearbook, which included the typical “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, Miller had said “Secretary of State.” By high school, the answer had evolved to “President.”

“I think he is an unusual kid for a football player and an unusual football player for a kid,” Eric said in an interview with ESPN last month. “I think he’s a tactician and a strategist, but he is also self-effacing and has the ability to bring people together.”

As Miller’s mom, Emily Kovner Moss, explains, the family was not oriented around creating and protecting a high-level athlete. Growing up, Miller would become fixated on certain things — Greek mythology, space travel, drawing or basketball — and his parents wouldn’t pull him away to focus on football.

“He would be pretty obsessive about things and really pursue them,” Emily said. “We have so many books on Greek gods and goddesses and airplanes and rocket ships from those days.”

In the end, though, football was what stuck — more specifically, the dream of being USC’s starting quarterback. Though Miller’s upbringing didn’t occur in an environment where there was pressure to perform, he still cared every time he went out on the football field. Or, in the case of his first few years at USC, when he had to stand and watch from the sidelines. “There were obviously moments that were frustrating,” Eric said.

“There were people that told me ‘What are you doing?'” Miller said. “Even people on our own team being like, ‘Hey man, you could play, go play other places.'”

During the shortened 2021 season, he threw 13 passes. The year after, 14. All of them came in garbage time.

“I expressed that to my family: This sucks. It’s not fun,” Miller said. “It’s difficult watching film of opponents and I’m thinking, I know I can do this. It definitely tested my patience.”

The 2022 Pac-12 championship game was rock bottom. Needing a win to all but guarantee a spot in the College Football Playoff, USC was trailing Utah in the second half and Williams had hurt a hamstring but stayed in the game. According to Miller, coaches told him to get warmed up. But the moment never came. Williams stayed on the field, and after scoring 17 points in the first half, the Trojans’ offense only scored seven points in the second half and lost to the Utes 47-24.

“Caleb is a hell of a competitor and earned the right to stay in the game, and I can’t say that if I was him in that position, I wouldn’t have done the same thing,” Miller said. “But that awkward back and forth of ‘Am I going to go in or not?’ was frustrating. It was disheartening because I walked away from that questioning Lincoln’s belief in me.” Miller communicated his frustrations to Riley and asked about his position on the team. If the coaching staff didn’t trust him, he needed to know so he could move on with his college career elsewhere.

“I always wanted him to know as his mom that you always have a choice, you are never stuck somewhere,” Emily said. “I always wanted him to know that he had agency. And of course, when you’re emotionally connected to something, it’s more difficult to exercise that agency. At the same time, when you have an emotional connection, you’re more invested and you work that much harder and it means that much more.”

It wasn’t just about football. Miller’s entire life is at USC. He likes being a college student. USC is connected to not just his football career, but his education and dreams beyond the sport. That made it easier to push away the idea of transferring.

“What was hard about it is that he loves USC,” Emily said. “He’s so dedicated to it, dedicated to it in every way, athletically, academically, socially. Like it’s in his soul.” Miller has already earned a bachelor’s degree in law, history and culture with a minor in business finance, and he is currently pursuing his master’s degree in social entrepreneurship.

“Him staying at USC this whole time has been painted as an allegiance to the program and school, which is true,” Eric said. “But I also think it has something to do with his sense of himself … He is genuinely connected on campus, it’s not just a means to an end. He has his friends on campus, his girlfriend, the football guys and, this may sound odd, but he’s actually a college student in a community that’s bigger than the football team.”

That’s why when Riley assured Miller that the Pac-12 championship situation was not a reflection on him or his talents, it was easy to believe the coach. That was enough to convince him to commit to another year at USC. In 2023, Williams would still be under center, but Miller Moss’ opportunity was getting closer.

LAST YEAR, MOSS’ season took on a different tone. He knew that he would spend most of his time on the sidelines. But he knew he was only a few months away from getting his shot. He didn’t even give the transfer portal a thought.

“Coming into USC, I was probably pretty naive thinking I’d play a lot,” Moss said. “I think one thing that I had to learn early on in college is there’s a bunch of different paths to success.”

Despite the low points and the lack of playing time, Moss remained engaged and established himself as an emotional leader who competed in practice and invested in the younger wide receivers. Getting a start in the Holiday Bowl was, in some ways, a culmination of Moss’ journey. But after 60 minutes and six touchdowns, it became a showcase that vindicated Moss’s patience and jumpstarted the next part of his career.

“It was a magical night. It was more than I could have dreamed of,” Emily said. “The battle was fought for so long and he had really earned it, and that made it all the more fulfilling, But it’s part of a journey that has had ebbs and flows, so it’s not the end of something, it’s the continuation.”

Since the Holiday Bowl, USC did add a quarterback in the first transfer portal window, but it was not a multiyear starter with experience. Instead, they added UNLV’s Jayden Maiava — a rising sophomore with plenty of potential coming off a 3,000-yard season. Riley has remained consistent in saying that the position is up for grabs.

“After the way Miller played in the bowl game, and not just the way he played that night, but the way he handled those six weeks of practice, we felt extremely confident in him and we really felt like there was not much of a need to really pursue anybody that was older,” Riley said. “We’re going to let those two guys duke it out.”

Moss hasn’t let that deter him. He spent the offseason watching documentaries about successful sports teams such as the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick New England Patriots and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, and he has tried to soak up knowledge about leading a team. He has organized team outings and throwing sessions down in Huntington Beach, too. The foundation Moss built as a backup and the work he has done since has been noticed by his teammates.

“I feel like his talent has always been there,” sophomore wide receiver Zachariah Branch said. “He has a good arm, great confidence and he can read the scheme of defenses as well, but his leadership definitely has grown.”

Even if it appears that Moss’ transition from backup to leader happened overnight, he and those around him know that it hasn’t.

“These are always roles he’s always been attracted to, and that he’s always had in schools, in the classroom on teams,” Emily said. “So it’s not like, oh, all of a sudden I am the leader of this team. This is a 22-year project in the making, whether it’s in an athletic forum, an academic one, an artistic one.”

Football might be at the forefront of Moss’ mind at this moment. But as Eric puts it — almost echoing the quotes he once gave to “The New Yorker” — the past three years have shown this journey is about a lot more than that. Maybe “Secretary of State” and “President” have been replaced with “NFL quarterback,” but Moss’ experience at USC so far has been as instructive to his career as any time on the field going forward will be.

“If you’re the SC quarterback, everyone has an opinion on you,” Eric said. “To persevere in that context, he’s demonstrated he can do that. And that inner confidence, I think, is a real quality for Miller that will help him in lots of ways when football is history and he’s doing something else.” The experience he’s gone through has not only allowed Miller to stick to his plan in the face of adversity, but it’s also made him more well-prepared than ever to step into the demanding role this season will ask of him.

“In my mind,” Moss said, “I’ve lived every day of the past two years preparing for this.”

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