As a high school wide receiver, Santana Moss woke up early every Sunday during college football season to view a rebroadcast of the University of Florida game and study the routes his favorite receivers ran. Then, he'd ask his younger brothers, Sinoric and Lloyd, to help him emulate those routes in the front yard.
By the time he got to the University of Miami, Moss had the moves down. And he had the speed, setting a Big East record for the 60-meter dash in 1999 with a time of 6.83 seconds. At 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds, he didn't have size, but those sessions with his brothers more than made up for it.
"Everybody looks at me as a guy who goes deep because of my speed," said Moss, who has a career average of 16 yards per catch. "It's true I'm blessed with speed and I'm very thankful for having it.
"But what I have done in my career to get me this far is my route-running. That's what I take pride on: my separation from defenders and running precise routes."
The Washington Redskins acquired Moss from the New York Jets during the offseason in a trade for Laveranues Coles, citing Moss's instinct for making big plays. With the Jets, he averaged 18.6 yards per catch and scored a team-high five touchdowns. With the departure of Rod Gardner, Moss will be paired with David Patten, another undersized but explosive wide receiver who won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
Moss, 26, figures to stand out in route-running with the Redskins, just as he first did all those years ago in high school -- thanks to his practice sessions.
"People said that by far my routes looked different from the whole team's routes," said Moss, whose brother Sinoric is a senior wide receiver with the Hurricanes. His brother, Lloyd, is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida International. "I would run our [routes], but I would give it a little different twist, just to make sure I gave the defender something different."
At the University of Miami, Moss also starred in track and field, winning Big East championships in the triple and long jumps in 2000. But it was his wide receivers coach, Curtis Johnson, who helped him get to the next level. Moss studied the routes of NFL receivers and fellow college wideouts and went on to set Miami's all-time record for receiving yards with 2,546.
"Santana runs really good routes," said quarterback Patrick Ramsey. "He recognizes the fact that if you focus on that and combine that with his speed, he can certainly be very explosive."
Ramsey has noticed in practices that Moss has a unique quality for a wide receiver: He hasn't said a peep when returning to the huddle after being wide open and overlooked on a play. Moss is mostly quiet during practice and in the locker room. During interviews, Moss is reluctant to talk about himself.
"Santana is a laid-back person," said tailback Clinton Portis, a teammate at Miami. "He's a trouble-free guy. I don't think any coach has ever had problems with him. He hardly gets mad."
Portis said Moss, a liberal arts major at Miami, showed his college friends a different side. "He was a little dance fiend . . . " Portis said, grinning. "He used to dance all the time. In Miami, they have a thing called poppin'. Just seeing him here, you'd never know he was a top popper."
Portis described the move as hip-hop style and said Moss often danced in the locker room for his Hurricanes teammates to get them pumped up before big games. Portis recalled that Moss even entered a contest staged by Miami-based rapper Luke (formerly of 2 Live Crew).
Portis thinks that coordination can be seen in Moss's routes. Moss explodes out of his cuts, changing directions seemingly without losing speed. Those herky-jerky motions, or double moves, while running precise routes, mystify defensive backs.
"He definitely has all the DBs shook up," said wide receiver Darnerien McCants. "He has a little flavor at the top of all his routes that lets him get open."
Despite Moss's speed, Patten said his teammate shows patience in routes.
"A lot of times, speed guys don't exercise patience running their routes," said Patten. "He does a great job. When guys know you're fast, they are going to play off you. You have to be patient in your route and make them think you're running a [different] route. You can't just come up and throw your head out. That's high school stuff."
Moss figures to get plenty of chances with the Redskins. Despite a career-high 90 receptions, Coles forced a trade after criticizing Gibbs's offenses for too many short passes. The Redskins threw in Coles's direction 168 times, the second-most in the NFL last season. Wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said yesterday that certain plays in last year's offense are perfect for Moss, who turned 35 of his 45 catches into first downs last season.
"I hope they build the offense around him. It would play to his game," Coles said yesterday in a phone interview. "He has all the tools, and he's a game-changer. He can get to the Pro Bowl next season with his skills."