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December 23, 2013

Murray the best of the '15 QB crop

Having a dead period around the holidays typically means that there's not a lot going on in recruiting. Nonetheless, there was plenty of high school talent to watch this past weekend out at AT&T in the Texas state championship games that started Thursday and finished up late Saturday night.

No one stood out more than Allen quarterback Kyler Murray, who led the Eagles to their second consecutive Class 5A Division I state championship with a 63 to 28 victory over Pearland. Murray had perhaps the best game of his career with numbers that are truly mind blowing: 11 of 14 passing for 280 yards and four touchdowns; 13 carries for 188 yards and another touchdown. Overall, Murray handled the ball 27 times and averaged 17.33 yards per snap. That average per play should dictate that he reach the end zone about five times and sure enough he garnered a touchdown about once every five times he handled the ball.

Murray was so efficient that Allen had the ball for a little over seven minutes in the first half and scored four touchdowns (their fifth came on a kickoff return). Pearland held the ball for 23 minutes, forced two turnovers, and ran the ball relatively well; nonetheless, their strategy was rendered pointless by Murray's ability to strike quickly.

Even so, no one else in the state stirs Allen's drink like Murray does. Last season, Murray (who considers himself a passer first and foremost) played behind an offensive line and with a receiving corps that was oriented toward moving the ball on the ground. As a result, Murray was more of a zone read quarterback and operated off of play action in the passing game. In fact, Murray even split time for a while with senior receiver Oliver Pierce at the position (which seems ludicrous in restrospect).Murray's speed and elusiveness served him well in that role but it wasn't one that he was entirely suited for or happy with.

This season, big tackles Bobby Evans and Gregory Little manage to give Murray time to hold the ball that he didn't have last season and junior Jalen Guyton provides him with a downfield threat that he lacked. As a result, everyone has found out about Murray what he already knew; he is an accomplished passer far beyond his years. The son of former Texas A&M quarterback Kevin Murray, the younger Murray has the footwork and delivery of his father who completed 59% of his passes in 1985 when such a completion percentage was exceptional rather than the norm as it is now. This season, Murray averaged approximately 11 yards an attempt and threw 46 touchdowns; throw in another 19 touchdowns on the ground and Murray accounted for four touchdowns a game running and passing.

There's a tendency to compare Murray with A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel since both aren't the 6 foot 4 pocket passers that most college programs crave. There is one other similarity between the two; both of them overwhelm you with numbers but it's the memories of individual plays that stay with you. Murray had a number of those on Saturday beginning with the Eagles' second drive of the game when he took off on a 57 yard run in which he darted, feinted, and weaved through a Pearland defense that looked like a Pee Wee team trying to tackle one of their fathers in a pick up game. In the second half, Murray moved to the outside off of play action, saw an opening, and just turned on the jets like he was the fastest player on the field (which he was) for a 36 yard touchdown run.

Murray also had a couple of throws that only he could make, touch passes that would get virtually any other quarterback at any other level in trouble. He hit Guyton on a 21 yard pass in the second quarter where Guyton was running away from Murray to his right on a crossing route and there was a defender on Guyton's hips. Guyton is essentially running parallel to Murray and has turned upfield; if Murray underthrows the ball a tick it gets batted away; if he overthrows it Guyton can't get to it. Instead, Murray laid it right in there over Guyton's shoulder. In the third quarter, Murray faced a blitz and saw Cole Carter get a step on his defender on a corner route. He readjusted his delivery and delivered a mortar round that dropped in right over Carter's shoulder who also had a defender on his hip. Again, it had to be perfect from 18 yards out and it was.

It's those types of plays that draw you to Murray as a prospect. As a runner, he sees things on the periphery of his vision and always is avoiding danger; on his 57 yard run in the first quarter he just would slow down, find a blocker or space, and then speed back up but he never seemed to be in a hurry or overextend himself. His vision also pays off in the passing game; he can avoid rushers and find receivers to the edge of his field of vision like he did Guyton.

But if you want to compare to him to Manziel (and I don't), you have to stop where their passing ability is concerned. Murray is more advanced right now than Manziel and in fact he's a lot farther along than most college quarterbacks period. Footwork is the hardest thing for a prospect to learn and yet it's probably the most important technical aspect of the position. Murray never makes throws without his feet being set at the proper width even when he's on the move.

In addition, Murray has a compact, quick release. He doesn't drop his elbow or hold the ball low and the ball snaps out of there. All of those things enable him to put the type of touch on the ball that he displayed on the two aforementioned passes and also get the ball out before the pass rush can get there.

Most of all, the game doesn't move very fast for Murray. He sees more than most people on the field and combines that with the calm demeanor of someone much older. Nothing fazes him; on the second of two touch passes I described earlier, he adjusted his delivery in the face of someone coming right at him. On his long run in the first quarter, he moved about the field leisurely and in an unhurried fashion despite the fact that he was the fastest person out there.

There's a tendency to think that Murray doesn't know what it's like to face adversity because Allen simply runs away from people every week. However, last week in the state semi finals against DeSoto, the Eagles found themselves trailing with under nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter 35-20 with their season and their legacy on the line. Murray whipped them downfield twice to tie the score (including a two point conversion) into a ferocious north wind and wet conditions and accounted for all the yardage himself via two passes and a run. Murray then accounted for all of the yardage on Allen's final 60 yard drive, virtually all of it coming on the ground due to the wind. With 0:18 to go in the game and Allen facing a potential 41 yard field goal into the wind (I can't emphasize that enough), Murray took things into his own hands and ran 24 yards for the game winning touchdown.

On a day in atrocious conditions when Murray basically had two quarters where he couldn't throw the ball and versus one of the better defenses in the state, he accounted for all but eight of his team's 395 yards of total offense and three touchdowns with no turnovers and produced 22 points into the wind when there was no margin for error.

That's the definition of poise.

Murray will never get his due in terms of prospect rankings due to his height. People who watch him play point to the success of other quarterbacks such as Manziel, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees in that regard but mostly it's about people missing the essence of the position which is the ability to make good decisions rather than a player's physical attributes. To paraphrase former Super Bowl coach Jimmy Johnson, quarterbacking is about the mistakes that you don't make rather than the plays that you do make. Murray won a state title last season when he had to be more runner than passer because of the team around him rather than his own skill set; even so, as a first year sophomore starter he threw just one interception in the playoffs and that came off of a pass that bounced off of a receiver's hands. This season, he evolved to being a game changer, someone who could put a team on his back and carry them and yet he still just had nine interceptions in 16 games.

Dallas Morning News columnist Goose Gosselin made the point in a recent column that NFL teams trade up in the first round only for defensive linemen and quarterbacks. In other words, the league puts a significant premium on those two positions. The 2015 class in Texas is loaded; it's one of the better classes in recent memory with five star caliber prospects at multiple positions. Even so, none of them have produced at Murray's level over a two year period in terms of either numbers or hardware. In addition, you can't say that he's excelled against inferior competition; the Eagles have beaten four teams that have reached the Class 5A state finals in his two years at the helm and three others who had undefeated regular seasons.

In fact, following Gosselin's line of reasoning based on his 30 plus years of observing the NFL, you can certainly make a case that Murray is the top prospect in the state for 2015. Not only that, you can definitely make the case that he is the top quarterback in the state not just in the class of 2015 but the top one right now period.


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