After Jim Goodwin finished his college career as a pitcher at Rutgers-Camden in 2014, he returned to his hometown of Delran, N.J. as a substitute physical education teacher in the district’s middle and high schools while coaching the freshman baseball team.
As Goodwin and another gym teacher timed seventh-graders running the mile one fall morning, one stood out.
“I remember turning to the other gym teacher,” Goodwin recalled during a phone interview with The Daily last week. “I just said, ‘Who’s that kid?’ ”
Not long into the mile run, R.J. Moten had already put major distance between himself and his classmates. Laughing at the fact Goodwin didn’t already know Moten, the other gym teacher filled him in. Moten was Delran’s baseball prodigy, he said. Goodwin’s eyes lit up.
From the moment he watched Moten run the mile, Goodwin hoped he would get a chance to coach Moten someday. The raw tools were there from a young age, and he had a reputation for loving the game. But Goodwin didn’t get that chance when Moten was a freshman. From the day Moten got to high school, he was a starting outfielder for the varsity team and a safety on the varsity football team.
Still, many of his friends played for the freshman team. He would ride his bike down to the school field to sit in Delran’s dugout and watch them play.
That’s where Goodwin first got to know Moten.
“He would sit there and talk baseball with me,” Goodwin said. “That showed a lot of character early, as a freshman, that he’s still going down to see his friends play in the freshman game. He’s trying to sit there, trying to learn about the game. That was impressive as a kid.”
Three years later, Moten and Goodwin found themselves sitting together in the Delran dugout again, this time under different circumstances.
Goodwin was promoted to varsity head coach in 2019, and by then, Moten had established himself as one of the top players in New Jersey. He hit .508 at the plate with six home runs, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases across 23 games as a junior. On the mound, he posted a 5-1 record with a 1.75 ERA and 35 strikeouts.
Moten’s name was attracting national buzz. During the ensuing winter, he and Goodwin held workouts for scouts from the Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, among other clubs. The clubs left impressed by his winter showcase and returned to Delran for an in-home visit with Moten’s family. After discussing his draft range and slot value, the scouts planned to evaluate him in person during the school season despite the fact he’d already committed to play football at Michigan.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Moten’s senior season was canceled. Soon after, all New Jersey spring sports followed suit. The Major League Baseball Draft, usually 40 rounds, was shortened to just five. While the abbreviated draft saved $30 million for MLB owners, it shattered the dreams of an entire class of prospects — including Moten.
“I think if (COVID-19) didn’t happen, I definitely would’ve gotten picked by somebody,” Moten told The Daily.
Today, Moten is a redshirt freshman and starting safety for the Wolverines. He committed to Michigan in July 2019 with the intention of playing both football and baseball in college. He spent the recruiting process getting to know Jim Harbaugh and his staff, but also had conversations with baseball coach Erik Bakich. His commitment coming on the heels of the Michigan baseball team’s College World Series run wasn’t a coincidence.
Even as MLB teams tossed out big slot values and signing bonuses during the pre-draft process in 2019, Moten remained steadfast in his desire to play football in Ann Arbor. Teams offered to work around his football schedule. One club posed the idea of flying him out to train with the team each winter before returning for spring football practices.
Moten was open to the idea but always reinforced his desire to wear the winged helmet. If the MLB Draft went as planned, however, things could’ve turned out differently.
“From talking to the Royals scout after the draft, he was probably looking at being a top 10-round pick out of high school if it was a normal year,” Goodwin said. “At that point, you don’t know what happens money-wise, if they try to lure him away from Michigan. You never know.”
So far this season, Moten has racked up 20 tackles through six games at the back end of Michigan’s secondary. He’s made a major impact as a new anchor on a defense that has improved from the Big Ten’s second-worst unit last season to the second-best in 2021.
And at the rate he’s improving, this could be just the beginning.
As a two-sport phenom in high school, Moten’s days were busy. He was a four-year starter for Delran’s varsity football and baseball programs.
But during the fall, he seldom stepped foot on the diamond. And during the spring, he rarely put on shoulder pads and a helmet.
“He was all-in to whatever season it was,” Goodwin said. “When he was playing football, you wouldn’t know he played baseball at all because he was all-in, true love for football. He showed that same kind of love for baseball during the baseball season.”
Part of that was due to strict New Jersey rules limiting the amount of time high school coaches can spend training their players during the offseason. Still, Moten’s coaches admired his ability to devote himself to whichever sport was in season.
If anything, it made his two-sport dominance even more impressive.
“He was considered a top prospect in New Jersey for baseball, but 99% of those top prospects are playing 50 to 75 games every summer,” Goodwin said. “He wasn’t doing that at all. He was just picking up the bat during baseball season, and he was one of the best players in the state. Then, he’d put it down and say, ‘Alright, I’ll be back next season.’ ”
And when he got a rare chance to participate in offseason workouts, he made the most of it. Delran football coach Garrett Lucas — a former Division I offensive lineman at Saint Francis — would set up two cones in the Delran gymnasium and put a tire between them for one-on-one matchups. Moten dominated most of his reps.
“It didn’t matter against which kid, whether it was the 300-pound lineman or the starting quarterback, (Moten) was determined to win anything,” Lucas told The Daily. “That’s where you can tell he has that competitive nature. No matter what it is, he’s going to do it.”
After going 3-7 during Moten’s freshman and sophomore seasons, Delran improved to 7-1 the following year. As a senior, Moten led the Bears to eight wins.
Moten’s usage was one of the biggest changes that sparked Delran’s turnaround. He spent much of his first two years playing strictly safety, but Lucas had him play running back, slot receiver and quarterback on offense. Defensively, Moten moved all over the field under the new scheme.
“He was like Jabrill Peppers for our team,” Lucas said. “You name it, he did it.”
All told, he finished his Delran career with 3,500 all-purpose yards, 41 touchdowns, 79 solo tackles, eight sacks and 14 interceptions. But more importantly, the defense ran through him as an upperclassman. Most football teams, from the high school level all the way up to the NFL, use linebackers to make the checks and calls on behalf of the entire defense.
Not Delran. Lucas made it one of Moten’s top responsibilities, and he delivered from a leadership standpoint.
The result? Delran’s first sectional championship in 27 years.
While some coaches were turned off by Moten’s decision not to focus on football year-round, Harbaugh held Moten’s baseball aspirations in high regard. It reminded him of something his college coach would tell his teams.
“I remember Bo Schembechler used to say, ‘Every American boy should play soccer until the eighth grade. Then, he should play football,’ ” Harbaugh said Monday. “Kind of funny, but there’s a lot of truism to it.”
In the past, Harbaugh has recruited dual-sport soccer players, wrestlers and basketball stars. Prospects who play multiple sports don’t get marked down when the Wolverines evaluate talent. Instead, their stock rises.
“It’s something that you seek out,” Harbaugh said. “You try to find the player that’s good in multiple sports when they’re in high school. Most great athletes are good at multiple sports. Specifically, as a safety to have played baseball, to be able to track a ball much like a centerfielder would, that’s exciting.”
Moten’s Michigan career is off to a fast start on the football field. His baseball legacy, on the other hand, hasn’t yet begun.
And it won’t.
That might come as a surprise given that Moten was adamant about playing both sports during the recruiting process. He even eliminated some schools from consideration if they refused to offer the opportunity to play baseball.
Yet throughout the process, Lucas cautioned him.
“I’ve seen the layout of a typical day for a Michigan football player,” Lucas said. “I told him, ‘Bud, you’re going to go there and say you’re going to play both sports, but there’s no way in hell you’re going to. Just give me a call after a week and let me know.’ ”
Sure enough, a few days into Moten’s freshman year, Lucas’s phone rang.
“Coach, nope,” Lucas recalled Moten telling him. “My days with the bat are done. I can teach my kid that one day, but there’s no way.”
But that wasn’t a product of Moten’s busy football schedule. Rather, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on during the summer after his high school graduation, his time away from the baseball diamond dragged on.
“Once the (pandemic) happened and I didn’t have that baseball season, my mind lost baseball,” Moten said. “… I kind of grew away from it.”
As a junior in high school, Moten went through two seismic coaching changes.
After the retirement of 43-year coach Rich Bender, Goodwin took the reins of Delran’s baseball program at age 27. Lucas, on the other hand, was even younger. He became the football head coach at just 25 years old once former coach Pete Miles called it a career after 27 years.
When Moten committed to the Wolverines, he thought he was joining a defense defined by its stability. But after Michigan’s once-vaunted defense unraveled in 2019 and 2020, Harbaugh fired 66-year-old defensive coordinator Don Brown. First-time play-caller Mike Macdonald, 34, left the NFL ranks to assume Brown’s post.
Faced with yet another coaching and schematic overhaul, Moten dug in for a crucial offseason. The result was a Week 1 starting safety nod against Western Michigan.
“I knew coming into spring ball I had something to prove, especially not playing last year,” Moten said in September. “I went out through spring ball and through camp with a chip on my shoulder. I’m here now.”
Youth was a clear focal point when Harbaugh and Macdonald assembled the Wolverines’ new defensive staff. The oldest assistant is just 43, and just two coaches have celebrated their 40th birthday.
So far, that youth has made all the difference to Moten.
“If I were to compare it — and this is no shame to older coaches, no shame to coach Brown — but they believe certain things and won’t change,” Moten said Tuesday. “They believe their way is going to be the best way. … When I got here, it was almost like you still wouldn’t see change. For example, if (safeties) Brad (Hawkins) or Dax (Hill) were gassed, they were still in the game.
“Then with coach Macdonald, it’s unreal. When we get off the field, it’s straight to the white board, and the whole play would change. They were down to change, and they’ll ask us, ‘How do you see it?’ If they’re going to change something, we’ll tell them what to change it to.”
The changes are paying dividends for Moten, whose confidence and schematic understanding are at an all-time high. Similar to his high school football and baseball teams, the young coaching staff has directly contributed to wins on the field.
And once again, Moten is a centerpiece of that success.