LUBBOCK, Texas — They are waiting in Lubbock. Dressed in their blackout best, cowbells in one hand and posters in the other, the students of Texas Tech have arrived early with their short fuses lit, leaning out over the field, necks craned toward the corner of Jones AT&T Stadium that contains the visitors’ locker room.
“Here he comes!” one yells to the others, their faces plastered in double-T eye black stickers. “Let’s let him have it like we did Mayfield!”
One guy is wearing a Baker Mayfield Texas Tech jersey with a big white taped “X” through the name and number. Another is in a T-shirt with Mayfield’s February 2017 mugshot printed on it. And another has a poster that reads “At least we’ve heard of Baker? Who is Kyler Murray?”
Who is Kyler Murray? He’s the QB in the No. 1 jersey who jogged past the trio and its howling Red Raiders brethren and winked when he caught their handiwork in his peripheral vision. He’s the QB who has kept the Oklahoma Sooners from missing even the slightest offensive beat since the departure of his Heisman Trophy-winning predecessor, Mayfield. In fact, Murray’s offense might be better.
He’s the QB who already has been a first-round draft pick. In baseball. The QB who already has signed a multimillion-dollar deal with the Oakland A’s, is the former future cornerstone of Texas A&M in both sports, is the current cornerstone of both sports at Oklahoma and is maybe the greatest Texas high school player who ever lived.
Now, with Bedlam against Oklahoma State looming (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), Murray is also the only player who hasn’t completely vanished into the rearview mirror of the Tua Tagovailoa Heisman express train. Despite their Oct. 6 hiccup against Texas, the Sooners still have the inside track to a spot in December’s Big 12 title game and currently sit sixth in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings, among the wad of one-loss teams hoping to sneak into the postseason CFP foursome.
So sorry, jersey/eye black/poster guys, despite your best efforts, Kyler Murray was not rattled. On a wind-frosted night in Lubbock, he wasn’t rattled by the efforts of the Texas Tech D, either, not even when it intercepted him twice in the first quarter and the Red Raiders got out to a 14-0 lead. Or when they seemingly hemmed him into the sideline, only for him to reverse field for a long run. Actually, multiple long runs. Or when Tech continued to storm back late in Saturday’s game.
“That guy is never rattled,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said after his team’s 51-46 loss to the Sooners, shaking his head as he looked over Murray’s final stat line: 360 yards passing with 3 TDs and 100 yards rushing with one TD. “He follows a legendary player [Mayfield]. He signs a Major League Baseball contract and has to hear about that all the time. He loses to Texas and has to hear about that all the time. And in the middle of it, he’s constantly told he’s too small to do anything that he’s doing. I think most anybody would be a nervous wreck all the time having to deal with that. My job as the opposing coach is to make him nervous, uncomfortable. We gave it all we had. But he’s never nervous or uncomfortable.”
OK, in fairness, he was. Once. It was in high school, the first game of his sophomore year. Only a few weeks before the Murray family had moved to Allen, Texas, home of the Dallas football powerhouse Allen Eagles. The move was not coincidental, his father deciding that 15-year-old Kyler’s future would be better served at a high school that was about to christen a new $60 million stadium. The first game in that stadium was against the defending state champs, and Murray, whom everyone knew darn well was destined to be the starter, was riding the pine.
“That night? Yeah, I was pretty nervous before the game,” Murray recalled. “But I got over it pretty quick.”
Quick, as in a week. Murray participated in only one forgettable series (0-for-3 passing) in that first game. He took over as starter in the season’s sixth game, and Allen won by 56 points. Then won a state title. Then two more state titles. In three championship seasons, Murray posted a record of 42-0, throwing for 10,386 yards, rushing for 4,139 and accounting for 186 touchdowns.
“He did things I’ve never seen a high school quarterback do before or since,” said Arkansas coach Chad Morris, who recruited Murray heavily as an offensive coordinator at Clemson. “And I bet if they’d had a heart monitor on him, his pulse would’ve looked like he was taking a nap. He’s the most confident kid you will ever meet. Not cocky, confident.”
He comes by that confidence honestly. If there’s a little bit of cockiness in there, well, he comes by that honestly, too. The father who moved his family to Allen is Kevin Murray, a Texas A&M QB legend who led the Aggies to a pair of Southwest Conference titles and a pair of Cotton Bowls. His one-man destruction of Texas earned that first Cotton Bowl trip in ’86, where he outdueled Auburn’s Bo Jackson to cement his status as an eternal Lone Star football demigod. That’s why Kyler originally chose to attend A&M. When it didn’t work out, he left the homeland and went north to Norman, in no small part to learn at the hand of Mayfield.
These days, the elder Murray oversees an assembly line of college QBs through his Air 14 Quarterback Academy. His latest project? Chandler Morris, a 2020 QB prospect and the son of Chad.
“Kyler plays like you’d expect a coach’s son to play and prepares like you’d expect a coach’s son to prepare,” explained Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, himself a Texas-born QB fathered and grandfathered by Texas-born QBs. “No detail escapes him. He just devours whatever you put in front of him. And his broad vision of the field extends to everyone on that field. He watches film big, which means he sees the entire picture, how everything and everyone fits together.”
When teammates and coaches from Allen, A&M and Oklahoma are told of Riley’s comments, they all grunt and nod in “yeah, that’s right” unison. They tell stories of a QB who refuses to let his receivers stop running routes in practice — even after the horn has sounded to end the session — until they have run those routes to perfection, and a “coach on the field” voice unafraid to speak up during a film session when he sees even the tiniest imperfections in the execution of a play.
“That’s what makes him a great leader, and that’s why we do what he says,” said Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. “We haven’t slowed down any on offense [after Mayfield] because we’ve had two great leaders showing us the way.”
Lamb smiled and cut his eyes over to where Murray stood nearby, checking to see if his QB could hear his next comment.
“Sometimes we have to tell him to speak up, though,” Lamb said. “We never had to tell Baker to speak up. When he does speak up, you know it’s big.”
If Mayfield lived by “speak loudly and carry a big stick,” his successor is more “speak softly and carry a big kick.” Reporters who have long worked the Oklahoma beat admit to becoming a bit spoiled over three years covering Mayfield — he of the smack-talking, crotch-grabbing, flag-planting infamy. The 2017 Heisman winner could fill a reporter’s entire notebook with the answer to one question. Murray, while well-liked, might not fill that notebook by season’s end.
Exhibit A: Bedlam week. Mayfield talked so much Oklahoma State smack that it couldn’t be confined to game week. His poking of the Pokes was year-round and has continued even after he departed for the NFL. On Wednesday, Murray was peppered with questions about Oklahoma State and responded to them all with a series of split-second answers. He reacted to a series of queries about his recruitment by OSU by saying, “I’m not a fan of Stillwater.”
That’s the closest Murray will ever come to providing bulletin board material. Mayfield bypassed bulletin boards and went straight to billboards.
That approach, like Murray’s approach to football, comes via his DNA. Kevin, while never reluctant to talk about his QB students, has moved toward politely sidestepping media requests to discuss his son, especially when the questions are about the future. Baseball vs. football, or baseball and football, or, hey, is this not a one-and-done situation? Might he stay for another year at OU?
The Murrays do not lack for confidence. These days, it’s a very quiet confidence.
“I don’t think ‘reserved’ is the right word to describe Kyler. I would call it ‘measured.'”
That explanation came from Mayfield himself.
“He’s not going to let himself be taken the wrong way or taken out of context,” Mayfield said. “He’s smart like that. He’s certainly smarter than I was about that. He’s the silent assassin, man. While people are saying, ‘He’s too small at 5-foot-whatever and he’s a baseball player,’ he’s torching them. He’s not listening. He’s working. And he’s so smooth you don’t realize what he’s doing until he’s done with you.”
Smooth, yes. Perhaps even too smooth. The numbers are staggering. In nine games, he has completed 71 percent of his passes for 298.8 yards per game. His 12.3 yards per attempt and 31 touchdown passes are ahead of Mayfield’s numbers at this time last year. His 216.6 QBR is 10 points higher than Mayfield’s, and Murray’s 63.8 rushing yards per game is more than three times that of the reigning Heisman winner. Those stats, along with his seven rushing TDs and 6.2 TD/INT ratio, are all way ahead of Oklahoma’s last three Heisman winners — Mayfield, Sam Bradford and Jason White — after nine contests.
Murray leads the nation in pass efficiency at 216.6. Mayfield’s NCAA record for season-long efficiency, set last year, is 198.9. Murray leads the nation in yards per attempt and ranks second in yards per completion (17.5) and points responsible for per game (25.3). He’s third in passing TDs per game (3.4) and total offense (362 yards per game). And while many have marveled at Tagovailoa’s numbers despite minimal second-half playing time, Murray has also sat out two second halves and ran only 40 plays in an overtime game against clock-eating Army on Sept. 22.
“The arm strength has totally caught me off guard,” admitted ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay, who was on the sideline for the Texas Tech game and will be again this Saturday at Oklahoma State. “The comparisons to Russell Wilson are legitimate. And it’s not just about their height, both under 6 feet, though Wilson is much thicker in build. They are both natural leaders. There’s also a natural flow to their play. Murray is so smooth that I think it does him a disservice on film. In person, there are dynamics to his play that make you go, ‘Wow.’ He makes very difficult plays look very easy.”
Old-time baseball writers love to debate Willie Mays vs. Hank Aaron. Mays, who always had his ballcap flying off and was catching fly balls off his shoelaces, is remembered as perhaps the greatest outfielder to ever play. Aaron might have been just as good, but he also always comfortably ran those fly balls down and ended every game having barely broken a sweat. Mayfield and Lamar Jackson and Jameis Winston — and, yes, Tua — tend to look more like Mays. The Oklahoma outfielder is as chill as Aaron.
But don’t mistake smooth and quiet for boring. Those in Murray’s small inner circle tell of a kid who drives a Camaro, hogs the video game console and is obsessed with Conor McGregor. And did you see the shirt he wore to the postgame news conference after hanging 398 yards and four TDs on Kansas State?
— Josh Callaway (@JoshCallaway714) October 27, 2018
Oakland A’s, NFL, bat speed, throwing mechanics, 5-foot-whatever, Texas A&M, Heisman Trophy … there’s a lot of noise and almost none of it has to do with beating Oklahoma State this weekend.
No wonder Murray chooses to keep it quiet.
“Kyler has a lot going on in his life, and everyone always wants to know what’s next for him, and it feels crazy, but honestly, that’s pretty normal for him,” Riley explained. “But what makes him such a tremendous athlete is his ability to focus on none of that and just on what’s next. The next play and the next game and what’s right in front of him. That approach has worked out pretty well for him to this point. And us.”
“I just try to stay in the here and now,” Murray said, in a tone so quiet one must lean in to hear it live and turn the voice recorder up to 11 to make it out later. “Worrying about what might happen months or years from now would take away from enjoying what’s happening right now. And right now is pretty fun.”