A year from now, Kyler Murray will be shagging flies and taking B.P. at some level of the Oakland A’s organization. In June, he was the ninth player selected in the Major League Baseball Draft and soon after the A’s paid him a $4.66 million signing bonus. That’s nice walking around money for a BMOC.
Part of his deal with Oakland allowed him to play football at Oklahoma this season. Despite what second-year coach Lincoln Riley recently hinted, Murray almost certainly has this season and this season only with the Sooners. He is the presumptive starter but is currently engaged in a heated battle with red shirt sophomore Austin Kendall.
Murray, who has been a two-sport star since his days at Allen (Texas) High School, could easily have traded a helmet with a face mask for a batting helmet and started his path to the big leagues. If he wins the starting job at OU, all he has to do is replace Baker Mayfield, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner who put together two of the best statistical seasons for a quarterback in college history while leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff.
Murray has enjoyed being the butt of jokes and zingers about his bank account but counters that he still feels broke and that he’s learned about taxes (which may account for why he feels broke).
But it’s clear that Murray, a redshirt junior, wants a season as a starting quarterback at a blue-blood program.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if I wasn’t hungry to play this,” Murray said recently. “I think this is the most anticipated football season I’ve ever been ready for in my life. I’m ready to go. The ultimate goal here at Oklahoma is to win the national championship. We haven’t done that in a while. For me, that’s the deal. I’m not used to losing.”
Like the player who hopes to replace, Kyler Murray has something to prove.
Few players in the storied history of Texas high school football had a career like Murray’s. Playing for the Allen Eagles, a huge high school in a growing suburb north of Dallas, he was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior in 2014 when he passed for 54 touchdowns and rushed for 25 more. Allen won three consecutive state titles and Murray was undefeated as the starting QB.
Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury recruited Murray. He says the three best high school quarterbacks he’s ever scouted are Murray, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Patrick Mahomes, who in his second season in the NFL is the Kansas City Chiefs’ starter.
At 5-11 with sprinter’s speed, Murray was a 5-star quarterback prospect in high school. At the same time, he was on the radar of major-league scouts. Being a dual sport star is in his genes. His father Kevin was Texas A&M’s starting quarterback from 1983-86 and his uncle Calvin was a baseball All-American at Texas and played parts of seven seasons for San Francisco, Texas and the Chicago Cubs.
Kyler continued the Murray legacy by signing with the Aggies. The apparent destiny of a fairy tale ending never became reality.
Former A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, whose career in Aggie Land benefitted from the Johnny Football booster rocket, won the recruiting battle to land Kyler. However, sophomore Kyle Allen, himself a 4-star recruit, won the starting job in 2015. Murray saw spot duty running a Wildcat formation and started three games when Allen was hurt. A&M’s 5-0 start melted to an 8-5 finish with talk that the quarterback room had become an icebox.
After the 2015 season, Allen announced he was transferring. With the A&M starting job his, Murray then shocked everyone by announcing he was transferring to Oklahoma.
Why he walked away from the Aggies has never been fully explained but there are two schools of thought.
- Sumlin, who was under increasing pressure to match his debut season record, had promised playing time to Murray but decided Allen was the best QB to win games. A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who left for Cal after the 2015 season, was caught in the middle trying to game plan, coach and please two talented quarterbacks.
- Two There was talk that Kevin Murray, who is now a high school assistant who also runs the Dallas-based Air 14 Quarterback Academy, was meddlesome and acting like a “helicopter parent.”
And Kyler Murray this spring made it clear that he found greener grass in Norman.
“At A&M, it just wasn’t the right fit,” he said. “You can’t play up to your capabilities if you’re not being coached or in the right system really. Nobody understands how much coaching matters until you see it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve gained a lot of respect for coach Riley. I think I’ve progressed well. Right now, I think I’m playing the best football of my life.”
Mayfield’s story of two-time walk on to Heisman winner has reached legendary status. A first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, Mayfield is again trying to prove the doubters wrong. He made a successful college career out of playing with a chip on his shoulder and is now doing the same in the NFL.
Murray has a similar “prove it” motivation. In three years on two college campuses, he has watched more than he has played. His days of high school stardom and dominance are fading memories. With Oklahoma’s fortunes this season largely pinned to quarterback play, Murray wants to be The Man.
“Quarterback is such a tough position, you’re on an island in some ways,” Riley said at Big 12 media days. “You’ve got to have a chip or an edge.”
That edge got honed last spring. Murray split his time between spring practice and the Sooners’ baseball team. He started 50 of 51 games, hitting .296 with 10 homers and 47 RBI. The Sooners lost in the championship game of the Tallahassee Regional but Murray was unable to play in what turned out to be his final collegiate game.
He had a Grade One hamstring strain just above the back of his knee. He begged coach Skip Johnson to let him play – “Coach, I’ll take it easy, I won’t sprint.” When Johnson left him out of the lineup, Murray wouldn’t speak to the coach the rest of the game.
“If I play him and he tears that hamstring, I would have had an angry mob waiting for me back in Norman,” Johnson said with a chuckle during our conversation. “He just wanted to play in a game that could get his team to the Super Regional.”
Johnson just completed his first season as OU’s baseball coach. Last fall, he had a team meeting to go over off-season rules, workouts and expectations. Murray was in the middle of football season. But he showed up for the meeting. Johnson also notes that in his two seasons with the baseball team, Murray moved from the infield to the outfield and then from left field to center field. For OU’s mid-week home games, after football practice Murray would get to the park about 5:30 to take batting practice and get ready to play.
“He has intangibles that you can’t see,” Johnson said. “Kyler has been in the spotlight since the eighth grade but he’s all about the team. He has leadership qualities that are as great as his physical talents. Kevin and Calvin had the winning dynamic throughout their careers. That’s the family mindset. They were committed to that and I think Kyler has learned that. You know it when you see it.”
Johnson believes that a full collegiate baseball season can help Murray’s mindset for football. The “one play at a time” mantra most football coaches embrace was a “one pitch at a time” playing baseball.
“Early in the season, when he was used to going 9-for-10 passing, and he’d hit it on the screws right at somebody and he’d be pissed,” Johnson said. “I think this past season with us he learned more about the grind and putting the last at bat behind you and move on to the next one. You’ve got three downs, four downs in football. You’ve got three strikes, three outs in baseball.”
Riley admits his baseball expertise is limited but he and Johnson worked to make spring practice schedules fit with baseball.
“Skip and I have talked about it,” Riley said when asked about how baseball could help Murray as a quarterback. “Even if you’re the best hitter in the game, you fail 70 percent of the time. You only complete 30 percent as a quarterback, you’re not gonna be playing. I think playing baseball, it’s not so much learning how to fail, it’s more learning how to fight back from failure. Also, during baseball and spring football, he had a lot of challenges to overcome that I think helped with his mental toughness.”
Oklahoma enters this season favored to win its fourth consecutive Big 12 championship and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. In his time in Norman, first as offensive coordinator and last season as head coach, Riley’s offense over three seasons leads the nation in passing efficiency, completion percentage, points per game (44.2) and total offense (555.5 yards per game).
Those numbers came with Mayfield at quarterback.
A talented group of running backs combined with a solid offensive line and Murray’s speed could mean that the Sooners could be more ground-oriented. Riley is considered a brilliant game planner and play designer. Last season with a veteran QB, the Sooners overwhelmed most defenses, but they had wrinkles and tweaks that could also befuddle.
“In college football, you’ve got to get used to it,” Riley said of replacing key players each season. “Part of the fun, to me, is finding a way to replace those guys. It’s where we’re a lot different than the NFL. I guess in some ways, it’ll feel different, but in a lot of ways, it’s exciting to see the next crop of guys grow up and get their shot to lead and perform.”
As Mayfield’s backup last season, Murray played in seven games, completing 18 of 21 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 14 carries for 142 yards.
If Murray has incentive for this season, Kendall, a 6-2, 220-pounder who played in two games in 2016, also has the motivation of being the quarterback everyone is forgetting. Just two weeks into pre-season practices and there are whispers that Riley is toying with a plan to find playing time for both QBs.
“They’re not as far apart as it seems on the outside,” said Riley, whose off-season salary boost to $4.7 million made sure he’s paid higher than his probable starter at quarterback. “I think there is a perception on the outside that Austin is just a pure pocket guy that’s a statue and there’s probably a perception on the outside that Kyler is a track star that can’t throw the ball very well, which neither of those are true.
“Depending on who wins the job, we’ll try to tailor it to what they do best, of course. But most importantly right now, they have to be able to execute our base package, and then we have got to figure out who the best guy is.”
The last time Murray, 21, competed for a starting quarterback job, it turned out to be a train wreck with the cause yet to be publicly stated. If he becomes the starter and gets the majority of snaps, Murray will have one season to prove that he’s a capable college football player.
“I think the last few years has been good for him,” Riley said. “He’s been out of the spotlight, but he got the chance to watch how Baker has handled the hype the last two seasons. Kyler’s a pretty level-headed guy. There isn’t much that rattles his cage. He just loves to play and loves to compete.”