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Moss puts the dazzle back into his game

Miami receiver and kick returner overcomes early injury, warns Gators they'd better be ready.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001


NEW ORLEANS -- Miami receiver Santana Moss packs plenty of confidence into his fast-moving, 5-foot-10 frame. But he rarely swaggers, doesn't tend to gloat and generally lets his moves do the talking.

Still, he couldn't resist a jab last week at Florida kick returner/defensive back Lito Sheppard when told Sheppard claimed to be the better kick returner.

"When you talk, you'd better be ready," said Moss, who likely will match up often against Sheppard when the Hurricanes are on offense Tuesday in the Sugar Bowl.

"I've gone against a lot of guys this year (who were) calling their friends to tell me this, tell me that. ... When it's all said and done, I'll have the last laugh."

That's pretty much how the season has worked out for Moss, who was an early Heisman Trophy candidate until a sprained right ankle ruined his chances. But after a slow September -- and "slow" isn't a word often associated with the Big East sprint champion -- Moss has gathered steam.

In Miami's first big game, a 34-29 loss at Washington, he fumbled his first punt return and finished with one catch for nine yards. A month later in an Oct. 7 victory over Florida State, he broke out with seven catches for 115 yards. Since then, Moss has been his usual dazzling (and dashing) self.

He stole the spotlight from injured Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, widely considered college football's best athlete, in Miami's 41-21 victory. He scored two touchdowns, including one an 80-yard reception that would have been an overthrow by quarterback Ken Dorsey had Moss not discovered an extra jet on the way to the end zone.

Moss, who came to Miami on a track scholarship after a ho-hum high school football career, finished with four punt returns for touchdowns, 748 receiving yards and five touchdown catches, good enough to make him a first-team All-American. He owns Miami career records for receiving yards (2,546) and all-purpose yards (4,394). For 28 touchdowns in his career he averages an astounding 48.39 yards per scoring play.

After last season (899 receiving yards, six touchdown catches) Moss could have left for the NFL, but he promised his parents he would earn his degree.

He made another promise, too: to his now 7-month-old son, Santana Jr. Moss, who enjoys toting his son around during post-game activities, said being a father has grounded him in a way he never expected.

"Having a young son makes me look at life different," Moss said. "I'm careful. I used to just chill with my friends all day after practice and be out ... at someone's house just playing, kicking around, playing video games. But I try to come home to make sure I see him go to bed.

"Last year was a big year for me. ... When I was on top every week, I learned how to deal with the fame. This year, I think God did something in my life to make me stronger."

As Moss has added to his life, Dorsey said he also has added to his game.

"I think something a lot of people overlook, (is) his consistency in his play and his ability to do things that aren't just going deep every time -- catching the short hooks, the digs over the middle," Dorsey said. "I think that's something that on the next level they are looking at very closely, and I'm sure they're pleased with the way he has performed in all the other aspects of the game."

But first comes the matchup with Florida -- and that battle with Sheppard. The Hurricanes have more than Gators in their sights; they see a chance at sharing the national title with the Seminoles.

'We worked so hard just to get (to this point), I'd be glad to share it," Moss said. "The focus has been on just winning. We strive hard, work hard, play hard, practice hard."

- Times staff writer Joanne Korth contributed to this report.

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