When Gary Moore broke free up the middle late in the first quarter of Saturday's 48-14 Gophers victory at Oregon State, he knew nothing would stop him from giving the opposing quarterback a bear hug.

The 6-4, 287-pound junior defensive tackle wrapped his arms around the waist of Jake Luton and whipped him to the turf. The ball popped out. Sack. Fumble. Minnesota recovered and eventually scored to take a commanding 17-0 lead.

The first teammate to give him a celebratory smack on the shoulder pads was fellow lineman Steven Richardson.

Richardson, like Gophers first-year coach P.J. Fleck, didn't think Moore would be around to make those plays this year. As Fleck put it Tuesday, while raising his hand and leaving about a half-inch between two of his fingers, Moore was "this close from being out of the program."

But the Mobile, Ala., native went from likely transfer to unlikely opening-game starter and contributor up front for a defense that dominated the line of scrimmage against the Beavers.

"Last year, I didn't even think Gary could even be here," said Richardson, a senior tackle. "But right now, this Gary has done some great things. I keep seeing him grow every day and every week, too."

At a glance, Moore looks the same as last year. He's the same size, and he's still rocking dreadlocks.

"But I grew a lot," Moore said, "basically from the point of I was thinking about giving up to the point of just working hard, following Coach's lead and starting to get better at what I do now."

Three years ago, Moore played in four games as a true freshman. After redshirting the following season, he played only four games in 2016. Moore matched his four career tackles in two games this season, along with a sack, forced fumble and pass breakup.

Beyond better stats, Moore also has improved his quickness, stamina and fundamentals by driving hard at practice.

"Gary Moore is a changing man," Fleck said. "What an amazing story he is and what he's about. Just his attitude, just the way he speaks, just the way he walks, holds himself, talks, the way he plays. Gary Moore made a ton of plays [Saturday]. … If you would have told me that would have happened with Gary Moore five months ago, I would have said no way."

Moore, who lost his father a couple of years before going to college, had seriously thought of leaving Minnesota and getting closer to home for more stability. He wasn't playing last year, and then he was on his third head coach in as many years.

"It was kind of hard to get acquainted at first," Moore said. "But then I was like, 'I'll give it a try.' I put all my work in and it has panned out. My teammates talked to me and helped me stay. A lot of them I came in with are still here. They made me understand that it's more than just about me."

A big question heading into the season: Who was going to help Richardson, a returning All-Big Ten selection, on the defensive line? Part of the answer so far has been Moore.

"He caught everybody's eye," defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "The way he's gone to work, the way he's carried himself, the way he's prepared. Those things that he did, everybody in this building noticed."