Take a glance at Ryan Moeller patrolling the gridiron, and a number of first impressions might spring to mind.
Toughness. Savvy. Even strength. Yet at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, the phrase "linebacker" probably doesn't get included among those immediate adjectives.
When Derek McCartney went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third game of the year at Michigan, the Colorado Buffaloes faced an uncertain void at outside linebacker. Given the hard-hitting habits Moeller had shown at safety and the Buffs' wealth of depth at defensive back, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and safeties coach Joe Tumpkin approached head coach Mike MacIntyre with what was perhaps an unorthodox solution — moving Moeller to linebacker.
In the five games since Moeller has made his coaches look like geniuses, providing a steady presence closer to the line of scrimmage that has dimmed the sting of McCartney's absence.
"Ryan has played really well. He really has," MacIntyre said. "He's done a lot of excellent things. He's made plays up on the line of scrimmage, made plays in the backfield. He's made plays covering. Ryan was a good fit for us there. We play so many teams that play spread-type (offenses), or one tight end tight with one back, so we were able to utilize his strengths there."
A former standout high school running back who rushed for over 3,000 yards during his senior season at Rifle in 2012, Moeller embraced the change. Never mind that he would be tasked with taking on pulling linemen and other lead blockers with far greater frequency.
"I'll play wherever I can just so I can get on the field," Moeller said. "It wasn't daunting at all. The challenge was understanding the position more than I did. As a safety you need to have a good understanding of where everyone is at underneath you and what their job is. Now I need to be a little more specific and less general with the duties.
"I guess maybe there was a little bit of a learning curve, but it definitely was a challenge that was thrown at me and I'm continuing to try and win out."
Moeller has shined in his new role. In his first game at linebacker he logged a season-most 53 snaps at Oregon. In three of the past four games, Moeller has turned in his top tackles totals of the season, recording a season-best six against Oregon State and USC and adding five at Stanford.
Moeller's strength has been an asset closer to the line of scrimmage, and MacIntyre noted his quickness often can prove advantageous when bigger blockers are bearing down.
"He's extremely strong. If you took his shirt off you'd see how big and powerful he really is," MacIntyre said. "He's really an excellent athlete. He has an advantage a little bit because when linemen pull out because he can dodge them and then get on them. It's a little bit different animal for them to try to block out there than a bigger guy that's always going to take you on.
"It was a great move by Joe Tumpkin and Jim Leavitt to go ahead and do that. They brought it up. I was scratching my head thinking about it for a minute and said, 'Hey, let's go with it. It sounds like a good idea.' We went with it. It worked out well."
Moeller and the Buffs enter Thursday night's showdown at Folsom Field against UCLA leading the Pac-12 Conference in total defense (307.8 yards allowed per game). They also lead the league in pass defense efficiency (97.9), a trait that could prove useful against a Bruins squad that averages about 36 pass attempts per game and put up a whopping 71 passes in their most recent game against Utah.
"I feel more comfortable in that (linebacker) position because it allows me to play quicker and less tentative," Moeller said. "I think the idea was to get someone there who was more of a nickel or rover who could cover guys and set an edge. I think the fact we have had depth at DB and we know the scheme across the board helps being able to insert guys here and there."