Filling the Shoes
Kyler Murray sheepishly admits he didn't grow up an Oklahoma fan.
“I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings or anything like that,” Murray explained, “but a kid growing up in Texas, you're not really too fond of the idea of (playing for) Oklahoma.”
Murray was raised in Allen, Texas, northeast of Dallas. The son of legendary Texas A&M quarterback Kevin Murray, Kyler also says he was not a fan of the Texas Longhorns, the rival he will face this Saturday in an 11 a.m. contest at the Cotton Bowl.
A five-star recruit who was deemed the nation's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, Murray signed with Texas A&M in 2015, but left in frustration after his freshman season.
Looking for a place to land, Murray recalled meeting newly hired OU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley late in the recruiting process. “I think we hit it off a little bit,” Murray said. “You know you feel good about a coach when they come visit you.”
Thanks to Riley's charismatic first impression, the Sooners made their way onto Murray's radar and he transferred to OU. “Me now being here, I definitely have a different perspective on the program,” Murray said. “The standards here are ridiculous.”
"For me, I don't really worry about 'How can I fill his shoes?'"
- Kyler Murray
After dominating the scout team as a redshirt in 2016, Murray was ready to challenge Baker Mayfield, who had finished fourth and third in Heisman Trophy voting in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Then in June of 2017, OU head coach Bob Stoops retired and was replaced by Riley.
In Riley's first season as head coach, the Sooners advanced to the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years. Mayfield dominated Heisman balloting and received 78.8 percent (732 of 929) of the first-place votes, becoming only the fifth player to finish in the top four on three occasions.
Murray had a tough act to follow in Mayfield, who also was a transfer from the state of Texas. After one season at Texas Tech, Mayfield walked on at OU, redshirted his first season, started his final three seasons, won the 2017 Heisman and was selected by the Cleveland Browns as the No. 1 overall pick in last April's NFL Draft.
After two years of waiting, Murray finally got his chance to hold the Sooners' reins.
“For me, I don't really worry about ‘How can I fill his shoes?'” Murray said of replacing Mayfield. “I just trust the process, go in there and put in the work... I think it's showing so far.”
Murray has played so well thus far – he ranks first nationally in yards per attempt (13.4) and per completion (19.0), and second in points responsible for (126) and passing efficiency rating (231.0) – OU could become the first program ever to have back-to-back Heisman winners at quarterback.
Having closely observed Murray in practice and his limited game time, Mayfield knew what was waiting in the wings.
“Him wanting to get better every day, that's the exciting stuff you see behind the scenes that I knew exactly what type of guy and player we were going to have after I was gone, or if I got hurt,” Mayfield said of Murray. “If anything happened, I knew we were in good hands. There was never a doubt in my mind.”
A suspended Mayfield missed his only start at OU in last year's home finale against West Virginia. It took precisely one snap for Murray to make his presence felt in his first career start with the Sooners, scooting 66 yards on a keeper down to the Mountaineers' 4-yard line on the game's first play from scrimmage.
According to Mayfield, Murray's immediate impact should have surprised no one.
“He's obviously a tremendous athlete,” said Mayfield, who attended the OU-Army game in Norman two weeks ago. “If you don't see that, then you're blind. He has the explosiveness to create plays unlike anybody else.”
Murray's athletic prowess extends to baseball, where he excelled for the Sooners last season with a .296 batting average, 10 home runs, 13 doubles, 47 RBI, a .556 slugging percentage, 10 stolen bases and just one error in 104 fielding chances (.991) as a centerfielder.
“That was a dream of mine,” Mayfield said of playing football and baseball, “so I'm a little jealous of that. He's the best athlete in the country and that's not taking anything away from him being a great quarterback. He's specifically the best athlete in the country. Nobody can do all the things that he does and as well as he does. I've known that for a long time. I'm happy for him because playing quarterback at Oklahoma is a huge deal. I took a lot of pride in it and he's carrying on the tradition.”
"He's the best athlete in the country... Nobody can do all the things that he does and as well as he does."
- Baker Mayfield
Murray is a redshirt junior who is eligible to play football at OU again next season. That seemingly ended when he agreed to a $4.66 million signing bonus with the Oakland A's after becoming the No. 9 overall pick in major league baseball's amateur draft last June, although Murray hasn't announced his definitive plans for next year. (NCAA rules permit college athletes to play professionally in one sport while maintaining amateur eligibility in others.)
Murray had no intention of biding his time for two years behind Mayfield without reaping the reward.
“I feel I've earned this opportunity,” Murray said. “I've been playing this game since (I was) 4 years old. To me, it's unfinished business. I left A&M with kind of a bad taste in my mouth about not having fun. I was kind of in a bad place as far as football goes. Coming here was a great situation with Coach Riley and Bake... Everything just kind of worked out perfect for me.”
And if the A's had not allowed Murray to play football this season?
“That was a deal-breaker for Kyler,” said Murray's mother, Missy. “Luckily, (A's executive vice president) Billy Beane said, ‘We want you to check that box, Kyler.' Again, that was not even an option.”
Kevin Murray was a two-time, second-team All-American and is a member of both the Texas A&M Hall of Fame and Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. Kyler said he and his father have worked closely on his skills since Kyler was 8 years old.
Understandably, Kyler's father carries a heavy influence when it comes to athletics, but pretty much everything else has been influenced by his mother.
“Football is a foreign language to me,” Missy said. “When Kevin talks to Linc (Riley), I don't understand a word they're saying after they say, ‘Hey, how you doing?' Kyler is the yin to my yang. I'm the one person he can go to where, ‘I'm not going to talk about sports with you. I'm going to talk to you about everything but.' It's refreshing to me. I don't get on social media or read the newspaper.”
Despite her son's new-found millions, Missy quickly set some ground rules this fall. “Like I told Kyler after the draft, ‘Next year, you're a college student, an OU football athlete. Nothing changes. You signed a piece of paper (a pro contract), but outside of that, everything remains the same,'” Missy explained.
"I'm sorry, Sooner Nation. The most (emotion) you're going to get is that hippity hop that you're going to see him do."
- Missy Murray
Although his father is one of the most prolific athletes in Texas A&M history, that's not what drives Kyler.
“I don't think Kyler has ever studied his dad's films,” Missy said. “He grabbed onto the one-on-one time with his dad, not so much the A&M thing. It wasn't really a big deal. It just wasn't.”
Every time Kyler has played football or baseball thus far, he's likely been the best athlete on the field. When did he first realize this? “I think when I was just running for touchdowns,” Kyler said humbly. “You notice you're doing good when every time you break for a run you score, or the ball's always going to you, stuff like that.
“I always feel like I'm the best player on the field, no matter what sport it is. I think that comes from at a young age, my dad and my mom teaching me to always have confidence in myself, a never-come-in-second type deal. Not being cocky, but always being humble and knowing that God gives me these abilities to do what I love.”
Though Mayfield and Murray share a penchant for success, their personalities are nothing alike. In a word, Mayfield's behavior is often “maniacal,” while Murray's demeanor is “chill.”
“Oh, totally chill,” Missy said. “I'm sorry, Sooner Nation. The most (emotion) you're going to get is that hippity hop that you're going to see him do. He internalizes everything. He's not the big cheerleader kind of kid. I think he does motivate the team in his own way when he's on the field.”
Murray said of Mayfield, “Bake was kind of that rah-rah guy, but I like to stay to myself. I don't really do too much outside of football and baseball. I just like to chill and do my own thing. ... I think that's a big part of who I am, just staying kind of mellow.”
Murray's own mother can't explain her son's sense of calm.
“I'm in awe of him,” Missy admitted. “I'm interviewing him and asking, ‘How does it feel to win a third straight (football) state championship in high school?' You'll get a big smile out of him, but that's it.
“Even on draft night. When he got drafted in the MLB, on a scale of 1 to 10, he was probably a 3. He's so calm it's scary. He gets excited, then the excitement is gone and he focuses on the next thing. It's just who he is. I can't even explain it.”
Missy also marvels at her son's humbleness and focus.
“He doesn't have an ego,” Missy said. “He's not like, ‘There's nobody as good as I am.' It's not that mentality. He's got that ‘I'm gonna do me and I'm gonna go hard.' That's why I'm so calm at the games. I'm never nervous because at the end of the day, I know my kid is going to give his all. I've seen it happen. Unbelievable games we thought we were going to lose, this kid just puts in in overdrive. He's not a fan of losing. I don't think he bears the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“I call him a Ninja. He has this Ninja focus. When he gets focused on something, he just gets what he wants. He loves to win. He loves to compete, but it has to do more with his mentality than it does his athleticism. He has a powerful combination – God-gifted, talented, athletic and competitive. That gives him a little bit extra than the norm.”
Mayfield's outgoing personality was on full display for 3½ years, but getting to know Murray has been far more challenging.
What is there about Murray that no one knows?
“He's an undercover nerd,” Missy said with a laugh. “He's funny. He's hilarious. His favorite game is Scrabble. He's just a different kind of kid, but I love him to death.”
So does Sooner Nation.