TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban took a moment to let the question soak it in.
Alabama's coach had reached his boiling point in his talk with the media. He was tired of all the talk about the young, unproven players on his team: who didn't play and why, who stood out in relief, who could see more time moving forward. Saban bent his knees at the podium and put his hand to his forehead in frustration before deciding to ask his own pointed question in return.
"You know, what I’d like to ask is, we’ve got a lot of really good players around here, all right, that really play like crazy, you know, like C.J. Mosley," Saban said. "The guy plays every play in the game and on two special teams [units], he’s running down the sidelines with Christion Jones, faster than Christion Jones is, cuts the angle off the safety so the guy can run for a touchdown. How about somebody asking about him? What’s wrong with asking about him and what kind of player he is and how did he do? Because I mean, that guy does fantastic, alright?"
Well, Nick, this story's for you.
The problem with asking about C.J. Mosley is that C.J. Mosley doesn't have a lot to say about himself. Alabama's senior linebacker is deferential by nature. It's either about the system he's in or the players around him, but it's never about him. He's quiet, bordering on shy, and he'd cop to that assessment. Though he's a leader on the football team, he'd rather lead by example. He may play like his hero, Ray Lewis, but he doesn't shout or prance or bloviate like him.
His play speaks for itself. Last season he became the first Alabama linebacker since Rolando McClain to record more than 100 tackles. He won All-American honors and was second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss, all while playing a part-time role behind starting mike linebacker Nico Johnson. Mosley was the best backup in the country, and now he might be the best linebacker in all of college football.
If you don't know him by now, you will after Saturday's game against Texas A&M. Mosley is Alabama's best defender and arguably its best hope of stopping the Aggies' sensation at quarterback, Johnny Manziel.
Mosley, for his part, doesn't want the game to be about him versus Manziel. He said as much in a one-on-one interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday, but that might be what it comes down to. On and off the field, the comparisons are inevitable. In one corner, there's the media circus of Johnny Football: the big plays, the celebrations, the autographs, the social media outbursts, the NCAA investigation. And in the other corner, there's the media black hole around Mosley, smiling for the camera, albeit awkwardly. The most high-profile thing he did during the offseason was receive the keys to his home town of Mobile, Ala. Even then he told reporters, "Usually you see stuff like that on the movies with a superhero getting it." He couldn't see himself as the leading man.
Saban won't say it and neither will Mosley, but Bill Meredith had no problem putting the obvious comparison into words. In fact, it was the first thing Mosley's former coach at Theodore High wanted to talk about when he got on the phone this week.
"He’s what football is all about," Meredith said. "We’ve got Johnny Manziel all over the place. Let me tell you who C.J. is: he’s at church every Sunday, he’s so humble that if he owed a dollar to the football team he’d pay it, his Momma and Daddy was at every booster club meeting, he’s ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ he’s never been in trouble one time in his life. He’s exactly what you look for as a human being. He is the opposite of Johnny Manziel. Why don’t we write more stuff about him?”
Well, Bill, this story's for you, too.
The problem with writing about C.J. Mosley is there isn't all that much to write about C.J. Mosley's life. Often you look for a hook in a story, a moment where the subject had to overcome adversity to get to where he is today. With Mosley, it's hard to pinpoint just where that is. By all accounts, he's never had an obstacle in his way. Why? Because he never put one there.
Mosley comes from a blue-collar family. His mother, Tracy, is a substitute teacher, and his father, Clinton, a supervisor at a ship yard, kept the leash tight on their two boys, C.J. and younger brother Jamey. Dad was the disciplinarian, and Mom checked in on the kids' homework. Both boys knew if school wasn't taken care of there would be no sports. Clinton once brought C.J. to tears when he told him he'd miss a game because he didn't have his work done.
Clinton was the one to get C.J. involved in football. Father and son took a trip to see a football game when C.J. was three years old. Clinton pushed C.J. in the stroller and looked around, eventually turning his attention to his son.
"He looked at it and stuck his head out and all the time he kept his eyes on the field," Clinton said, recalling the first time he understood that football would mean something to his son.
It took a year of watching from the sidelines before Tracy could be convinced that the game was safe enough for her boy to play. It was a good way to keep him occupied and out of the streets, the couple determined. And it didn't take long to realize they made the right decision. C.J. was tall and "thick" for his age, but Clinton could see his burgeoning athleticism.
"I can remember him being 6 years old on the defensive line kids running around the end and down the field. Everyone on the sidelines would say, 'Watch this, watch this,' C.J. would bust out the pack and run the whole length of the field all the way behind the kid to the end zone," Clinton said.
"That's everything in a nutshell. He's gifted."
C.J. played football, basketball and baseball growing up. He ran track and even sang tenor in the church choir. Everything he did, he did well. On the football field he played offense and defense, scoring as many touchdowns as he stopped.
Meredith happened upon Mosley at a middle school track meet and couldn't help but marvel at the 6-foot-1 runner lined up for the 100-yard dash.
"All of the sudden, they start the gun and here comes this kid from the middle school leading the pack," he said. "You look up here and C.J., this huge monster, is running down the track and I said, 'Oh my God, this kid's special.'"
In Mosley's first game in high school, he had 22 tackles against powerhouse Prattville. The following Monday, a member of Auburn's coaching staff called to offer him a scholarship.
He couldn't bench his weight, but boy could Mosley fly. He thinned out in high school and played at a slender 210 pounds, racking up a school-record 186 tackles his senior season. He wound up at Alabama's camp for prospective athletes and impressed former linebackers coach James Willis with his speed and determination.
"Coach Willis came up to me and said, 'Man, C.J. won't get out of the drills,' " Meredith said. "Here's all these top recruits, and he's out there learning football.
"Let's just say that before it was over Coach Saban was coming up really friendly to me. After that I started being C.J.'s coach instead of the coach from Theodore."
Mosley was always determined to sign with Alabama, and in February 2010, he did. He was a Top-100 player nationally and the second-highest ranked player from the state.
At home, though, he was still the same C.J., or Clinton Jr., as his parents know him. Even after all the awards, he came back to Mobile to do his chores and sing in the church youth choir, even though he may be a little too old to do so. Co-workers ask the senior Clinton about his son all the time, hoping for a story of his celebrity only to have him say, "He's just a child like anyone else."
But there was an opportunity for Mosley's life to change after last season. He could have entered the NFL draft and likely would have been selected in the first or second round. Mosley instead chose to return to school, and there was plenty of speculation why. But according to Mosley's parents, it was never even an option.
"There was no decision," Clinton said, emphatically. "There was never a discussion about it."
The Mosleys admit that their son has insurance in case an injury occurred and an NFL career was no longer an option, but they wouldn't say how much the policy is worth, only that, "He's taken care of."
Mosley said he told Saban his plans to return to school before his junior season ever began. When the season ended, Saban asked to be sure his mind hadn't changed, curious if a first-round grade had piqued his interest. It hadn't. The truth is Mosley never looked into it.
"No, not at all," Mosley said of seeking advice from the NFL. "For me, I still felt like I had things to prove. I wasn't an every down linebacker [last year]. People are saying, 'Well, he's not big enough to stop the run' and this and that. From a football standpoint, I felt like I had something to prove."
Well, for the doubters, this story's for you, too.
C.J. Mosley doesn't look like your typical linebacker prospect at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, but most linebackers can't run like C.J. Mosley. Most don't have his reputation, either.
"You can see that he's the leader," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said of Mosley. "He's a playmaker. That guy never leaves the field, I don't care what package they're using. He's always the guy out there getting them lined up and making plays."
Mosley is the heartbeat of the defense. He may be quiet in public, but when he steps onto the football field, he changes. He said as a senior in high school that his favorite part about football was "trying to kill somebody." He's just not all that flamboyant when he goes about it.
"He's a competitor," Meredith said. "It's all business. There's no backing down about him."
And this weekend, he'll face the biggest challenge of his career as he's tasked with shadowing Manziel. Mosley wasn't aggressive enough during last season's loss to the Aggies when he spied Manziel, giving him too much of a cushion to run with the football and make plays with his arm. But Mosley says this time it will be different. This time he feels ready for what's to come.
"Every time I see it on TV or hear about how they came into our house and killed our momentum and how he lifted his season and their season ... "That's what happens when you're a great team, the bull's eye is on your back.
"I'm pretty confident. I know the coaches are. We feel more comfortable about it than last year."
Mosley has the skill and the speed to do the job. He may play linebacker, but he can fly. It wasn't that long ago that he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at Alabama's camp, where reports put Manziel's 40 time somewhere around 4.5 seconds.
"I just have to make sure I play my type of football," Mosley said. "When I have a chance to make a play on him, I have to execute."
You may not hear Mosley's name mentioned often in the build-up to the game, but expect it to be called plenty by announcers after kickoff.
Mosley wants to return the favor of losing at home a season ago, but he's not making the game about himself. Saban and others may want the focus to be on him, but that's not Mosley's attitude. He's not talked about like Manziel and other stars in college football for a reason. That kind of spotlight would be too uncomfortable. He'd rather just play his game, quietly and without fanfare.
"There's a lot of talk about me versus him or Alabama versus Texas A&M and their crowd and all this stuff, but at the end of the day it's all going to come down to execution," Mosley said. "The big thing would be beating them in their house like they did to us last year.
"I'm ready for that game day."