Dylan Moses and Nick Saban sat across from each other last January and attempted to make sense of what had gone so wrong for Alabama. Several days and more than 2,000 miles separated them from that embarrassing 28-point loss to Clemson in the national championship, and together inside the Mal Moore Athletic Facility in Tuscaloosa, player and coach arrived at a diagnosis.
Saban spoke about things like complacency and an overall lack of focus. Moses filled in the gaps. He'd been reflecting on the loss as well, stewing in the 44 points the team had given up. He pointed to issues within the locker room that his coach might have missed. Things like chemistry and culture. Things that have a way of bleeding into the product on the field.
Moses, a no-nonsense linebacker with a perfectionist streak, took it personally. Later, he'd tell reporters, "It left a bad taste in my mouth just because I felt like I didn't do enough."
Nothing was official when Moses met Saban for their end-of-season exit interview, but the writing was already on the wall: Mack Wilson, the starting middle linebacker and signal-caller on defense, was leaving early for the NFL. So were defensive lineman Quinnen Williams and safety Deonte Thompson. There was going to be a leadership gap without them, and Saban said he expected Moses to fill it. He was going to be a captain.
It was imperative, Saban told Moses, to take on the responsibility quickly.
Moses didn't hesitate. Two years of fighting through frustration and climbing the ladder at Alabama had led to this. He'd already shown his ability; the school's usually-bland media guide calls him a "freak athlete" and points out how he was a finalist for the Butkus Award last season. But as someone who had been dealing with outsized expectations since the eighth grade, it was time to make the leap from a face on the cover of a magazine to the face of a program.
Everything Saban shared, from his assessment of the failings of the previous season to his plans for the next, Moses had already been considering.
"We both saw it eye-to-eye," he said. Alabama lost something a season ago, and he made it his goal to get it back.
"It's all up to me to get that done."
Training with his father
The Dylan Moses story you know begins the summer before the eighth grade, when he receives scholarship offers from SEC powerhouses LSU and Alabama. A regional story quickly morphs into a national one as he appears on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and becomes a talking point for those who feel like recruiting has gotten out of control. A headline in Education Weekly asks, "Should College Coaches Be Recruiting Middle School Athletes?" The LSU assistant coach who first offered Moses remembers some television personality calling him out: "Shame on you, Frank Wilson!"
But what about Moses before then? Before he went through the turbulent recruiting process? Before he left Louisiana, eventually spurning his hometown Tigers to sign with Alabama? As he prepares to become the leader of Saban's defense, during a year in which he could cement his status as a likely first-round pick, it's worth remembering that his journey didn't begin the moment he was offered a scholarship -- and it didn't end there, either.
You could start at the beginning, when Edward Moses Jr. first held his son in his arms. Dylan was a quiet kid growing up, mostly keeping to himself and playing with his toys. Edward remembers chasing him around their home in Baton Rouge when Dylan was 3 years old. It was all fun and games until Dylan threw a little shimmy at him, causing him to stumble. He picked up his son: "Ooh, look at you! My little running back."
A former linebacker at Northwestern State, Edward was initially reluctant to let Dylan play football. He didn't want him to experience the same punishment he had -- the shoulder and knee injuries, the repeated hits to the head. But Dylan was strong-willed even when he was a kid, insisting he play running back and linebacker like his father. Edward relented and hoped that like so many other kids, Dylan would get hit for the first time and decide it wasn't the right sport for him. Instead, Edward said, "He got hit, he absorbed it and said, 'Let's go.'"
"Once I saw Dylan could really do it, I poured it into him," he said. "If you're going to play this game, you'll be the best."
The father-and-son training that followed became the stuff of legend. Pre-dawn workouts before school. Three-a-days during the summer. Running laps. Flexibility drills. Strength and conditioning. Over and over and over again.
"He might have been thinking about complaints like, 'I want to watch cartoons, I could be sleeping, I'm tired, I don't want to do this, I want my momma.' He could have been thinking all that stuff," Edward said. "But he never said that. Not one time."
The result: a child, all of 10 years old, with defined abs and biceps. Parents questioned his age so often that Edward started carrying his son's birth certificate with him to games. With every punishing run and every bruising tackle, word got out about this man-child among boys.
But Dylan was already on LSU's radar. One of Edward's fraternity brothers was on the strength staff under coach Les Miles and had watched Dylan mature. And if Edward had put two and two together at the time, he would have noticed how Miles and Wilson hung around his son's track club. They both had children at the club, but they had eyes on Dylan.
Wilson knew Edward, then a general practice lawyer, from their collegiate playing days. The younger Moses had just enrolled in middle school when he first caught Wilson's eye. "I saw him run and it was a thing of beauty," Wilson said. "So graceful and yet powerful."
You know by now that Dylan received the initial offer going into the eighth grade, but you might not know that he went to camp at LSU the year before that. They measured his height and weight and had him run, clocking in around 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. "It was ridiculous the size-speed ratio for a kid that age," Wilson said. He was tempted to offer him right then and there, but held off a year just to be safe.
All these years later, Wilson, who is now the head coach at UTSA, has no regrets offering Dylan so young. He wanted to put him on the map like he did earlier with a ninth-grade Leonard Fournette -- to "embed a place in his heart," as he put it. And as much as Dylan's athleticism impressed him, it was the way he carried himself that made Wilson believe he could handle the spotlight.
"He was kind, he was charismatic, he was polite, he was innocent, he was tough, he was smart," Wilson said. "He was all those things."
And it would take all those things -- and more -- to handle what came next.
Edward sat his son down and explained that his life wasn't his own anymore.
"You have to watch what you say and what you post," he said. "People are watching this type of stuff. Watch how you act at school. Be mindful of who's around you and who you're around. Because your name is out there now."
High school buzz
Andy Martin heard the buzz about the incoming freshman with the major FBS offers. Then the defensive coordinator at University High Laboratory School, which is located on LSU's campus, he even started coaching the linebackers "just because I wanted to make sure he was good to go," he said.
What he saw of Moses during those first practices confirmed his suspicions as much as it shot holes in them. On the one hand, he was everything he was built up to be physically. He didn't look like other eighth graders, Martin thought, he looked like a junior in high school. But, on the other hand, Moses defied those same expectations because he didn't have a trace of the attitude typically associated with highly recruited athletes. He was soft-spoken and kept to himself. "He wasn't really out there," Martin recalled. "He almost seemed shy."
"My worries for him were initially that he wouldn't live up to what everybody else thinks he's supposed to do," Martin said. "You always worry about that when people put you in the spotlight like that. But quickly you realized the more he's with you that, man, he's a good player and he's going to do exactly what expectations are for him."
Martin remembers that first practice when they were still trying to get a feel for the kid, putting Moses with the twos to break him in. On his very first carry, he broke off an 80-yard touchdown -- "and no one was close" -- and thereby ended his time with the second string. During one of his first games as a freshman, a Parkview Baptist offensive lineman made a beeline at Moses and Martin braced for impact. It was an all-district guard, Martin recalled, "And (Moses) dropped him right there."
Moses, who verbally committed to LSU four games into his freshman season, finished the year with a whopping 175 tackles, a school record. What Martin saw then and in the years to come is still hard to fathom.
"The speed, the power, the strength," he said. "What he was doing at a young age, I don't know who to compare him to. I'm not even going to try to compare him to a Bo Jackson or a Herschel Walker because those are freaks. But Dylan was a freak, he really was."
Moses had been courted by IMG Academy since his freshman season and finally relented going into his senior year, leaving home for the popular college way station in Florida. Martin, who would later become head coach, didn't begrudge him the move. At University Lab, he couldn't graduate early, and IMG provided that opportunity.
It wasn't an easy decision for Moses, whose mother wasn't thrilled with the idea of her son moving hundreds of miles away. Nor did it sit well with LSU fans around town who saw it as yet another sign the hometown boy would go to college elsewhere.
But something had changed during Moses' junior season. After a hamstring injury sidelined him, he dropped from No. 1 to 5 in the recruiting rankings. And rather than let it eat away at him, as he had in the past, he stopped trying to live up to everyone's expectations. By learning to focus on himself, he said, "everything sparked."
Grant Delpit, a defensive back whose family moved from Louisiana to Texas after Hurricane Katrina, was at IMG when Moses arrived. Delpit had heard of the hotshot recruit and, like Martin, instead found someone with none of the trappings of fame. He couldn't even tag Moses on Twitter because he didn't have an account at the time.
"It wasn't even a big deal to him that he got those offers," Delpit said.
Delpit, who would become a star safety at LSU, was blown away by Moses' speed, putting him in the same conversation as former Tigers linebacker Devin White, who ran a record 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. With Moses' dreadlocks sticking out of the back of his helmet, Delpit took to calling him the Predator.
Delpit pushed hard to convince Moses to join him at LSU, but when Miles was fired a month into the season, it became harder and harder to see him wearing purple and gold. To this day, Moses' father still gets worked up about him spurning the Tigers for the Tide.
"Dude, Coach Orgeron was in my class, we got inducted into the Hall of Fame at Northwestern State," Edward said. "Do you not think I wanted him at LSU?!"
The problem, Edward said, was that Dylan didn't have a relationship with Orgeron.
By that time, it was too late. He'd already made up his mind it was time for a change.
"I'm big on you being the best version of you possible and growing into the individual you're supposed to be," Dylan said. "And I wanted to put myself in the best position to do that, and I didn't feel like staying home would be something that would make me grow as a player, person and a man. In order to grow, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable positions, and that's what I did."
Early struggles at Bama
Edward was surprised when he started seeing clips of Dylan's first few practices at Alabama. Instead of reading the field and avoiding blocks as he was taught, he was going right at the offensive linemen, bull-rushing them and knocking them in the dirt. The show of brute force was impressive, to say the least, but it was also kind of unnecessary. Stripped of the five-star status he'd shouldered for years, was he trying to prove himself all over again?
Anxious to join a team coming off a national championship appearance, Dylan said he wanted to put his best foot forward and show off his "best moves."
Behind the scenes, though, he was struggling to grasp the playbook. A perfectionist, he'd study to the point of exhaustion. Overworked, he'd get stressed out to the point of tears.
"It was out of pure frustration," he said.
It took the better part of 11 months, but eventually he got the hang of the system. Unlike the phenoms with whom he was grouped as a teenager, Dylan wouldn't require a change of position like David Sills or a change of scenery like Tate Martell.
Moses appeared on special teams and cracked the linebacker rotation quickly as a true freshman. When veteran Shaun Dion Hamilton was lost for the season with an injury, Moses got even more playing time and earned starts in the final two games of the regular season.
Last year, he became a full-time starter and shined, recording a team-high 86 tackles. He and fellow linebacker Mack Wilson were both named semifinalists for the Butkus Award.
But in the national title game against Clemson, it was as if none of that mattered. The defense was a mess of miscommunication and missed tackles. There was bickering on the sideline as the defense gave up 482 yards. Alabama got punched in the mouth for the first time all season and didn't know how to respond.
When it was over, Dylan was angry. Reflecting on it in the weeks that followed, he took a hard look at the bottom and was determined not to let the defense go back there again.
Defense in his hands
If the exit interview with Saban wasn't enough to embolden Moses, spending two days of one-on-one time with Ray Lewis this summer surely made an impact. Back at IMG Academy in Florida, Moses served as a counselor at Lewis' camp and soaked in the wisdom of the future Hall of Fame linebacker he'd been watching since he was a kid.
The two barely spoke about football, Moses said. Rather, they focused on things outside the lines -- things like spirituality, mental conditioning and leadership.
"How to find yourself," Moses said.
They've been in contact ever since, trading texts. He counts Lewis as a mentor now. And though no one is going to confuse the usually-stoic Moses with the flamboyant leadership of Lewis, there are signs of growth in that department.
At SEC media days last month, it was as if Moses had finally found his voice. In a sharp suit and tie, he addressed rooms full of reporters and never deviated from the message: getting back to the Bama standard.
Saban would have been proud.
While avoiding any direct shots at his predecessor at Mike linebacker, Moses made it clear that what happened last year was unacceptable. He said getting knocked down was a valuable lesson that taught him "how I don't want the defense to be led."
"I tell myself and I tell everyone else," he said, "whatever happens to the defense this year is on me."
It took him a season to learn the playbook and a season to show he's one of the best linebackers in the country. But this upcoming season is about something more. It's about taking that next step, taking ownership and just plain taking over.
Safety Xavier McKinney called Moses a "dog" on defense -- in the positive, relentless kind of way. He's low-key, McKinney said, but noted how the quiet ones are the ones you need to worry about.
"He's one of the guys that you don't really want to make mad and get on their bad side, because if you do, you're going to have a lot of problems," he said.
When Moses was asked to describe what the identity of the defense will be if he does what he's supposed to do, he didn't hold back.
"I'll just say pure dominance," he said. "Everyone will be on the same page, communication-wise. It will look great."
This summer, with so much ahead of him, Moses reflected on his journey. A Louisiana contingent at media days peppered him with questions about LSU and he admitted that if Miles hadn't been fired, he probably would be back home in Baton Rouge. Moving out of state to IMG made the transition to Alabama easier, he explained.
He talked about his family and how their support kept him grounded during that initial tidal wave of recruitment. He never got sidetracked, he said, calling himself an introvert who doesn't like attention and really doesn't "like people in general."
He also reminisced on those workouts with his dad on the field before school. How he had to repeat a drill "over and over and over until I got it right." There was no bitterness, only gratitude for instilling his competitive drive.
"I always wanted to keep going until I won," he said. "That helped me develop as a leader, and that really separated me, too, into the player I am today."
With the NFL on the horizon, there's a sense the long and winding chapter of Moses' amateur life is coming to an end. Soon, who offered him a scholarship and when won't matter.
The toddler chasing his dad around the house, the quiet kid navigating fame as a teenager is gone. A determined young man eager to lead a program back to greatness has emerged.
The defense is in his hands now, he said. It's all there for him.
He knows what to do with it.