AUSTIN, Texas — Saturday marked 714 days since Joshua Moore last took the field for the Texas Longhorns and 435 days since Moore was arrested in downtown Austin for carrying a loaded gun without a license, prompting a season-long suspension that kept Moore off the field in 2019.
Moore only needed one play to spectacularly mark his return to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, catching a pass on the first play from scrimmage for the Longhorns and racing 78 yards for the touchdown.
In an interview with the media on Tuesday, Moore admitted that he didn’t necessarily expect to make a play that quickly, but he did have confidence in himself to make an impact during his first game for the Longhorns in nearly two years.
“I know what I bring to the table,” Moore said. “I kind of figured, I haven’t played for a year and a half, Saturday was my first game back, and just me being who I am, the competitor that I am, I knew I would make a big break at some point in the game. It didn’t surprise me that it was the first play of the game. I knew, like I said, I was going to have some success during the game.”
Moore did indeed have some success, even after the opening play, leading the team with six receptions for 127 yards on seven recorded targets. There was some room for improvement, as Moore wasn’t on the same page as senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger on one play, breaking off a route that Ehlinger expected him to continue deep, dropped a difficult, contested catch, and missed a block when he was lined up as the single receiver.
Still, Moore was able to provide the best evidence yet of his explosiveness since he arrived at Texas. A late addition to the 2018 recruiting class after decommitting from Nebraska, the 6’1, 169-pounder still has an exceptionally thin frame even into this third season in the program, but also ranks as one of the team’s best athletes.
In high school at Yoakum, he ran a rather unremarkable 4.67 40-yard dash, but posted a 41.5-inch vertical and a 3.96 shuttle in testing at a regional camp for The Opening. As a senior, Moore won the 3A state championship in the long jump, too. After appearing in the 2018 Under Armour All-American game, ESPN ranked Moore as a top-50 prospect nationally.
During his first season on the Forty Acres, Moore played in the six games to start the season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The highlight of his seven catches for 53 yards and a touchdown was his 27-yard score in the second half against USC on a post route.
Moore now confidently says that he’s the fastest player on the team, before giving the second-place nod to noted speed merchant Jake Smith, the sophomore from Arizona, and acknowledging the prevalence of speed on the team.
The career-best performance on Saturday admittedly provided a big boost to that confidence, but the big smile on Moore’s face as he spoke with the media via a Zoom conference call was in sharp contrast to how he experienced last season.
Able to practice with the team, but suspended from playing in games, Moore said that he cried every day the Longhorns took the field.
“I mean, that year and a half was a long, long, long year and a half being away from doing what I love, which is playing football,” Moore said. “To be honest, every game that I didn’t play in last year, I cried. Just me being who I am, I love football, grew up around football, coming here was my dream.”
It was a dream that Moore almost lost when he was spotted by police in the city’s camera surveillance system pulling a Glock from his waistband and chambering a round after an altercation, according to the police affidavit.
In February, Moore received deferred adjudication for the misdemeanor charge, clearing his way to return to the field this fall. In the 14 months since his arrest, Moore has had plenty of time to reflect on his mistake.
“Just to know that I almost threw that away hurt me,” Moore said. “I also learned that I’m a strong individual. I learned that I have an awesome support system. I learned that some of my friends weren’t really my friends. I took a lot away from it... I’m glad to be back.”
Being back meant a different set of emotions on Saturday, especially for his mother and his sister — Moore said they left the stands after his touchdown to let out their emotions in the relative privacy of the bathroom. Moore’s father chose to shed his tears at his seat.
After the game, it was a different set of emotions for Moore, who said that he couldn’t wait to see his family to experience the well-deserved catharsis of his successful return to the field.
“I would definitely rather see a smile on their faces than their faces that day last year,” Moore said. “So I’m blessed. And I’m thankful.”
Moore’s performance against UTEP didn’t just mark a high point for his redemption story with his family, but also with Texas head coach Tom Herman, who began recruiting Moore during his sophomore season in 2015 when Herman was still at Houston.
With an understanding that Herman could have dismissed him from the team following his arrest, Moore described his relationship with Herman as growing in respect for his head coach.
“I knew that he cared for me as not just as a player, but as a student, as a human being as well,” Moore said.
Meanwhile, Moore benefited from the lessons he learned watching Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson last season. Neither player was a vocal leader, but both showed up every day, working hard and never complaining, traits that Moore said match his approach to the game.
Once the team reconvened in Austin this summer, Moore set to work building up his chemistry with Ehlinger, a rapport that extends off the field, and his knowledge of the revamped offense under Mike Yurcich.
The new offense appears to suit Moore because of Yurcich’s willingness to maximize Moore’s strengths as a deep threat and minimize his weaknesses as a blocker. For instance, in a conventional lineup with the X to the boundary and then the H in the slot and the Z outside to the field, Moore would have to make the key block on bubble screens, a popular run-pass option to combine with tight zone.
Instead, Yurcich installed a glance/bubble or swing combination paired with tight zone to allow Moore to serve as a vertical threat on run-pass options while preserving the perimeter threat — that’s the play that produced the 78-yard touchdown to open the season.
When Yurcich wanted to provide a bigger threat on the perimeter, he used tight ends in that role, lining up Moore as the single receiver to create favorable matchups or pairing him stacked with a tight end close to the sideline, mirrored to the other side. That look produced a catch for redshirt freshman Brayden Liebrock on one play in which Moore served as the outlet and a catch for Moore on what looked like four verticals.
In another nod to popular Air Raid concepts, Moore caught a pass on the mesh concept that serves Moore’s speed well, featuring two receivers running crossing routes to beat man coverage.
One of the biggest takeaways from Moore’s best performance at Texas is not only that Moore started to show that he can fulfill his potential as a playmaker, but also that Yurcich already has a clear idea of how to effectively deploy the Yoakum product.
Yurcich looks correct that the wide receiver position will be by committee this season with its depth, but players need to step up to replace Duvernay and Johnson. On Saturday, Moore took a big step towards proving he can be one of them.