WELL-ROUNDED YOUNGSTER: Junior strong safety Moore brings versatile game, persona to Temple defense
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME: In his first full season as a varsity starter, Temple junior strong safety Zion Moore has contributed 47 tackles and two interceptions as a versatile, productive member of the Wildcats' defense. Moore and Temple shut out Waxahachie in the fourth quarter last Friday at Wildcat Stadium to prevail 28-14 in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game. Coach Scott Stewart's District 12-6A champion Wildcats (9-2) battle fifth-ranked 10-6A champ Rockwall-Heath (10-1) in the area round at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Burleson ISD Stadium. It's a rematch of the Hawks' 56-28 second-round win over Temple last December. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The position of strong safety on Temple’s defense requires a player who possesses the physical strength and instincts to make tackles near the line of scrimmage and also the speed and athleticism to cover receivers well down the field.
In other words, it takes an intelligent football player with a versatile skill set and a well-rounded game. For the 9-2, District 12-6A champion Wildcats, that makes junior Zion Moore the right young man to fill an important role.
Moore also happens to be well-rounded in his overall life. He looks forward to attending church every Sunday at Judah Worship Center – across Interstate 35 from Temple’s Wildcat Stadium – and he plans to pursue a career as a doctor, perhaps as a neurosurgeon.
As part safety and part outside linebacker, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Moore is asked to do many things for Temple’s 4-2-5 defense that recorded a fourth-quarter shutout in last Friday’s 28-14 home victory against Waxahachie in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II state playoffs.
Moore’s role is so multifaceted that it’s even difficult for him to identify which aspect he likes the most.
“I would say it’s pretty balanced, but man, when they send me on blitzes, that’s probably my favorite part. Coming from the edge with a full head of steam, just knowing that it’s go attack the backfield as soon as you see the ball, that’s probably my favorite part,” Moore said, before he considered another thing he enjoys doing. “And I’d say fitting the C gap on a run is probably the best part about it, knowing that you have to contain the edge, fitting it and making everything come back to (junior middle linebacker) Taurean (York).”
Moore ranks fourth on Temple’s defense with 47 tackles (31 solo) and shares the team lead with two interceptions as the Wildcats charge into their area-round showdown with fifth-ranked Rockwall-Heath (10-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Burleson ISD Stadium.
The Wildcats and the Hawks were undefeated champions of 12-6A and 10-6A, respectively, and both have nine-game winning streaks. It’s a rematch of Rockwall-Heath’s 56-28 second-round win over Temple last December at Baylor’s McLane Stadium in Waco.
Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox might have plenty of things to be concerned about, but he appreciates that the reliable Moore isn’t one of them.
“What is there not to like? Shoot, Zion’s a hard worker and a great kid. He does what he’s coached to do and he does it to the best of his ability at all times,” Knox said. “You don’t have to worry about him in the classroom. You don’t have to worry about him not being here or being late, none of those things. We’ve got a few of those (example-setting) guys, and that’s why we’re in the position that we’re in right now. They’re good to have.”
With a coaching background on the defensive side, Temple sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart said Moore is an ideal match for the Wildcats’ strong safety spot because he blends steady tackling and coverage skills with a keen understanding of how to perform his role and attack offenses.
“Zion does such a good job. He’s always in the top end of the grades (for each game) and graded out at 92 and 94 percent last week,” Stewart said. “He’s a kid we kind of hybridized last year. He played some weakside linebacker and some strong safety. Mentally he can handle those kinds of adjustments, because it’s not just completely different, but it is different calls.
“Strong safety is kind of an outside linebacker and more of a hybrid deal in a 4-2-5. There are some situations where he has to play high safety, and he’s a good enough athlete to do that. But he also can handle the box, and he understands how to handle the box so that he can play weakside linebacker. That spot was tailor-made for somebody like him or (injured senior safety) Johnny Donoso – somebody who knows how to play high safety and knows how to play inside linebacker.”
Knox said Moore, who turned 17 in September, is a much better all-around player now than he was when he took the field against Rockwall-Heath 11 months ago.
“Zion’s grown drastically in the knowledge of the game. I say that a lot about our kids,” Knox said. “He knows where to be, he knows how to do it and he’s there at the right time. We like him at that strong safety spot and he makes tackles in space well. He’ll continue to grow.”
EASY PICKINGS: Temple junior strong safety Zion Moore makes an interception against Bryan during the Wildcats' District 12-6A-opening 49-7 victory over the host Vikings on Sept. 24 at Merrill Green Stadium. Moore (47 tackles) and junior safety Naeten Mitchell share the team lead with two interceptions each for Temple, which went 7-0 in district play for the second consecutive season. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Moore made his varsity debut as a sophomore in 2020 and split playing time with then-junior Marshall Grays, although Moore didn’t play much on defense early. He started in the district opener at Copperas Cove, but a hand injury suffered in that game sidelined him for four weeks. Of his 10 tackles (seven unassisted), five came in the playoff loss to Rockwall-Heath that ended Temple’s season at 10-2.
Stewart has observed major strides from the more experienced and physically mature Moore this year in his first season as a full-time starter.
“When we make a scoop call, Zion actually gets in the B gap and he can do that flawlessly,” Stewart said. “That’s the biggest growth I’ve seen in him, is just the nuances and he understands concepts better. And he’s bigger and faster.”
Moore was credited with six tackles (four solo) and one sack last Friday as Temple won a first-round home playoff game against Waxahachie for the second straight year. After the Wildcats allowed a game-tying touchdown pass late in the third quarter, their defense responded by shutting out the Indians the rest of the way and senior Samari Howard’s two fourth-quarter TD runs helped Temple prevail 28-14.
“The biggest thing was keeping calm and keeping our composure even when the big plays did happen,” Moore said. “Instead of dropping our heads like most defenses do, we patted each other on the butt or on the helmet and said, ‘Next play.’ That’s a confidence booster for us. We’re obviously in the playoffs, so it’s not like we’re going to stop every single play. But if a big play does happen, we’ve got to go the next play. You can’t dwell on it.
“We picked up the energy and pace on our sideline. (We were) talking to each other on the field, making sure we got the right calls and that we’re lining up as fast as we can so they don’t run a play on us where we’re out of sorts or not in the right coverage or the right front call.”
The Temple-Waxahachie game was a physical, hard-hitting affair, and Moore still was feeling the effects of it during his lunch break Tuesday.
“I’ve still got some stuff sore. There was at least 10-plus people in the training room (Saturday morning). It’s never that deep on Saturday,” Moore said. “Just a sore shoulder and a little bit of a sprained thumb, but I’ll be all right, though.”
Moore certainly has played through pain before. During a preseason scrimmage at College Station as a freshman in 2019, he suffered a knee injury when “somebody clipped me on the side of my knee with the top of their helmet.” However, Moore was determined not to let the injury derail his first high school season, which included a starting role at running back.
“I played my whole freshman year with the knee hurt. It affected my speed a lot. Boy, I was slow. But I was still strong, so it didn’t faze me because I was still able to break tackles,” he said. “I just didn’t have the speed I normally had. Of course, my momma didn’t want me to play because she felt it was going to make it worse. But that was the beginning of the season and I didn’t want to miss the season my first year in high school, so I decided to play.”
Moore underwent knee surgery during the offseason and said he finally felt he was back to 100 percent on Temple’s first day of practice in full pads in September 2020, when he made the varsity roster as a sophomore.
“The hardest part was being on crutches and the time frame when you think you’re ready but you’re not really ready. It’s more mental than physical,” he explained. “Once you get past the physical part and you’re going full speed, it’s like, ‘Are you going to be able to plant on that leg? Are you going to be able to jump? Can you trust this?’”
Moore said the support of his mother, Theresa, and stepfather, A.J. Green, helped him navigate the recovery process.
“They were telling me that it’s only going to make you stronger and that I need to push to play harder to prevent more injuries but also to be better than what I was before I got hurt,” said Moore, who lived in Orlando, Florida, until he and his mother moved to Temple when he was 3, and he added that they visit family in Florida every two years.
Moore said his mom still worries about him getting injured, even though in his mind as a defender he’s dishing out far more punishment than he absorbs.
“She tells me after every game that every time I make a big hit, she prays that I won’t be hurt. I’ll be laughing, because how do I get hurt hitting somebody?” Moore said, smiling. “But she’s been supportive since I’ve been in little league and she’s come to every game – hasn’t missed one. I’m thankful to have someone like her to support me and have that support system.”
Moore’s mother also has a sense for noticing when her son isn’t at the top of the game and isn’t hesitant to let Temple’s strong safety know about it.
“She can tell when I’m not in it mentally. She knows by my body language when I get in my own head and I feel like I’m not having a good game,” Moore said. “Like after the Killeen game, she could tell that I was in my own head mentally. She told me for the whole (following) week that I need to learn how to keep my cool and stay out of my own head. She said, ‘You’re not doing as bad as you think you are. You missed one play, but you can’t let it carry to the next play.’ She said the same thing that Coach Stewart and the other coaches would say.”
Moore also derives motivation from his stepdad, who’s provided guidance in how to pursue his goals as a football player, including a desire to eventually play for an NCAA FBS program. He identified powerhouse Alabama as his dream school.
“He’s a huge influence. I’ve always carried a football, but he’s the one who actually put me in a football league and pushed me to play football," Mooe said about Green. "When football season was over, he always took me to the field on the weekends. He told me that if I have a dream of going Division I and going to a big school, then I’ve got to work like I’m D-I and have the mentality that nobody’s going to stop me from making it. He holds me to a high expectation and my momma does, too.
“Even outside of football, my dreams of being a doctor and being a neurosurgeon, they hold me to that expectation and push me to do it and not let me fall off. If I fall back in school, they tell me to get it up as soon as I can, because they know that’s my dream. They know what it takes. They didn’t go to college, so they push me the right way to make sure I get there.”
Moore said his interest in becoming a doctor and specifically a neurosurgeon began in middle school. He realizes that it’s a lengthy, challenging process to reach that level of the medical profession, but it’s something he wants to pursue.
“Once you get older, you know that you’re not going to play football forever. So I always wanted a well-paying job where I know I’ll be stable, and I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, but it was like, ‘What type of doctor?’” he said. “Working on nerves seems like something that’s real, real cool. At the same time, 16 years of school is a lot, all the studying for it.
“My mom always tells me it’s probably going to change, but I just know I want to be a doctor, whatever I do. Just being able to fix something and help people, you’re contributing.”
Moore also gets significant support and motivation from his church family at Judah Worship Center.
“I go to a great church, pastored by Demetrius Beachum. He’s one of my big supporters,” Moore said. “Every Sunday after a game, he’ll comment right before he starts preaching and say something like, ‘The Wildcats just won,’ or, ‘Zion had a big game.’ Last Sunday he said, ‘Congratulations to the Wildcats on winning the first round and going to the second round.’
“After every game I send him some film and he loves it. (I’m in church) every single Sunday and he’s a big part of making sure I keep staying with God and keeping faith and trusting in God.”
Moore said his mother is encouraging him to read the book of Proverbs from start to finish and had him download a Bible app that offers a verse each day.
“I pray before I come to school, I pray before games with the strong safety group during warmups and I pray before I go to sleep at night. I just pray about everyday things,” said Moore, who has a younger sister who’s a cheerleader and two younger brothers who play football.
Moore’s calm and poise were put to the test in Temple’s area-round clash with high-scoring Rockwall-Heath last year, one week after the Wildcats blanked Waxahachie 38-0. He played only on special teams during the first half, then took on the additional responsibilities of playing defense against an extremely potent Hawks attack that finished with 661 total yards in the Wildcats’ 28-point defeat.
“At halftime they told me I was starting (on defense) in the second half. That was probably my most nervous moment of last year,” Moore said. “When I started the Cove game, I was kind of nervous. But when they told me I was starting the second half of the area playoffs, it was kind of mind-wrecking at first. But then once the game started flowing and I started getting the calls, it started settling in.
“It was crazy, because to get a shutout in the first week of the playoffs, you do not see that these days because everybody’s got athletes. Anybody who makes it to the playoffs is a good team and anybody can win. Like Coach Stewart says, ‘It’s anybody’s game at any given moment.’ Going into the (2020) Rockwall-Heath game, it was kind of surprising because you see one set of athletes with a different team, then you go a different team and you see athletes where you’re just like, ‘Dang, they’re next level.’ You can tell.”
In Friday’s rematch against a dynamic Rockwall-Heath offense paced by prolific quarterback Josh Hoover, fleet-footed receivers Jay Fair and Jordan Nabors and strong, shifty running back Zach Evans, Moore said Temple’s defense wants to produce turnovers but plans to make things difficult for the Hawks regardless.
“It’s really important, because we pride ourselves on making turnovers. First game we didn’t have a turnover was the Waxahachie game, but we still played well as a whole defense in a game that close and got stops when we needed them,” said Moore, who’s made interceptions against Bryan and Copperas Cove this season. “Third- and fourth-down stops, you basically count them as turnovers because you’re getting the ball back to your offense.
“Turnovers will play a big part, but as long as we play our game and do our assignments that Coach Knox and the coaches put us in, the ball will come to us.”
Moore said he also enjoys playing on a variety of kickoff and punt units for Temple's special teams coordinator, Robby Case.
“Special teams is probably the most fun, especially having a coach like Coach Case. He’ll make you want to play special teams if you actually sit down and learn,” Moore said. “I even tell him sometimes, ‘Don’t take me out,’ when he does try to find me a break.”
Moore said he’s constantly motivated to improve his own game when he watches York, the three-year starter and reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP who’s collected 128 tackles this season.
“It pushes me a lot. Him as the middle linebacker and basically the captain of the defense, I know that he holds everybody who starts to a certain standard,” said Moore, who also talks shop on the bench with senior linebacker Faylin Lee and junior safety Naeten Mitchell. “Being a starter, more than meeting the standard I like to surpass the standard to make the defense be a well-oiled machine.”
A serious-minded player on the field, Moore likes to show off his fun-loving side when the opportunity arises.
“Coach Stewart tells us all the time, ‘There’s a time and place for everything.’ I would say the time you’d see me joking the most is probably our sticker meeting (the day before games). He lets us be loose and crack jokes,” Moore said, noting that he’s filled up one side of his blue helmet with stickers earned by reaching team and academic goals.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: Temple junior strong safety Zion Moore receives instructions from defensive coordinator Dexter Knox during the Wildcats' 28-14 win over Waxahachie in last Friday's Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game at Wildcat Stadium. It was the ninth straight victory for Temple, which has allowed a combined 62 points in its last five games. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Knox vouched for Moore’s ability to properly match his behavior to any situation.
“When it’s time to lock in, he’s locked in. He’s really good at that. Zion just has a great personality. He’ll light up a room if he’s in it, period. He’s a good jokester and just always having a good time,” Knox said. “You see him in the locker room with the boys and he’s always messing around. I haven’t seen him have a bad attitude very often. If he’s in a bad mood, something’s drastically wrong.”
Moore said it’s been rewarding to play for Knox, from learning the finer points of defense to team-bonding Wednesday dinners at the coordinator’s home.
“Playing defense in general is the most fun thing I’ve experienced over the years of me playing football,” Moore said. “Coach Knox makes it fun with all the schemes he comes up with and how he switches it up from week to week and teaches us how to play it.
“The most impactful part is team dinners, how we just sit and talk about anything and play games like Family Feud and Jeopardy. Being able to bond with a coach like that is probably the best part of playing for the defensive side of the ball.”
Moore said playing football for Temple’s tradition-rich program is something he constantly takes pride in.
“It feels good. It feels like an achievement, really, because everybody in town knows the Wildcats,” he said. “When you walk around and you’ve got the (rubber) bracelet with the acronym F.A.M.I.L.Y. – Forget About Me, I Love You – everybody automatically knows that you’re a Wildcat.”
Asked what he believes is different about playing football for Temple compared to other high schools, Moore said it’s the price that he and his teammates must pay to wear the Wildcats' distinctive blue-front, white-back pants.
“The main thing that’s different from us to other schools is the offseason. Our boot camp . . . oh, my gosh. It’s really like you’re in the army,” Moore said. “It doesn’t matter how cold it is – you’re still going to go outside and run your laps, you’re still going to lift weights, you’re still going to condition. You’re going to come before school, after school, whatever they say.
"That’s the mentality Coach Stewart’s instilled us with, to toughen us and be able to not break mentally or physically.”
Temple’s well-rounded junior strong safety, wouldn’t want it any other way.