Quarterback play at Oklahoma has been nothing short of third team All-America level since Lincoln Riley arrived as the Sooner offensive coordinator in 2015. Those three seasons were with 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield at the helm, putting up hefty numbers in Riley’s unique offense.
Kyler Murray replaced Mayfield this offseason. The Texas high school legend beat out Austin Kendall for the job two months after being selected ninth overall by the Oakland A’s in the MLB Draft. Murray and Mayfield have some similarities, but Murray’s speed and quickness are at a level past the current Cleveland Brown.
That speed and quickness is of extreme utility to a QB listed at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. Taking hits is of little benefit to any quarterback, let alone the only starting quarterback in the Big 12 shorter than six feet. It’s also of extreme utility for an athlete set to begin a career in another sport with a multi-million dollar check on its way, but that is much more debatable compared to limiting wear and tear for gridiron purposes.
As a result, Murray has avoided hits proficiently this season. Many of his long runs end in slides he’ll someday be using to score runs. That’s a useful tool for any quarterback, but especially one as explosive as Murray is.
So far, Murray has simply taken contact 32 times this season, with one of those occasions undone by offsetting penalties. His hardest hit came at the hands of James Nachtigal of Army.
The other hardest hit Murray has sustained was issued by a UCLA player not even on the field of play.
There’s no better evidence to Murray making a point not to take hits this season than on a speed option play in the season opener against FAU. Murray decided to pitch the ball in this scenario, to which Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt noted “there wasn’t even a defender there to pitch it.”
So far, Murray has been hit 21 times on a play that was not him getting sacked on a drop back, including one QB sneak for a touchdown against Baylor at the end of the third quarter. He’s been hit 11 times while dropping back, including 5 sacks.
Hit doesn’t mean tackles. It means any sort of firm contact.
He’s as elusive as they come, and Texas wants to make sure he continues to try and avoid hits the Longhorns want to deliver.
“You make him rattled, then he’ll think twice about running,” senior Charles Omenihu said Tuesday. “He’ll be looking for the rush, not just escaping to get gone or throw the ball. You get to him a couple times, he’ll be looking for where the next guy is going to sack him. That’s when you hone in on him.”
Fellow senior Chris Nelson put it simply.
“I know he’s going to run out of bounds when I chase him,” he said. “It’s going to be tiring, because he doesn’t want to get hit.”
However, Texas defenders know hitting the three-time UIL 6A state champion is easier said than done.
“I know for sure he’s one of the quickest and most agile just based off watching film,” junior Brandon Jones said. “I really haven’t seen anybody hit him. He’s not the biggest guy but he always manages to find a way to break tackles and get the first down.”
Texas seems to find ways to get to the quarterback in the Cotton Bowl. Blake Bell was sacked four times in 2013. Trevor Knight was sacked only once in 2014, but had four rushes for two yards with a long of five. Mayfield was sacked six times in 2015, once in 2016, and twice in 2017.
It’ll be tough to get contact against a quarterback who averages simply being touched around six times per contest in 2018, including several games in which the backups replaced him after the Sooners had built a comfortable lead.
“To be quite honest with you, they’re still one if not the best offenses in the country,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said Monday. “We’ll have our hands full.”
It’ll be tough to get contact, but how Murray will play after someone gets repeated hard contact against him is anyone’s guess. He left a game his freshman season at Texas A&M due to injury, but Kevin Sumlin was notoriously silent regarding injuries during his time at Texas A&M. Murray and Sumlin also never seemed to fully get along.
Herman noted Monday how much of a talent Murray is, and though the names at QB might have changed “I don’t know that the results have at all.”
If Texas can get hits on Murray, the results may change enough to where the MLB top ten pick is thrown off his game in a way he hasn’t been this season. If Murray remains elusive, it could be a long day for Texas.