The Gophers believed they’d found a hidden gem in 2011, when they plucked Derrick Wells from the outskirts of Fort Myers, Fla. Recruiting services had listed Wells as a two-star recruit, but he proved far more valuable than that last season as a sophomore in Minnesota’s secondary.
Now, the Gophers are ready to unveil another unheralded defensive back. Eric Murray, the sophomore cornerback slated to start opposite Wells, was a consensus two-star recruit in 2012, from Riverside University High School in Milwaukee.
The thought leaves Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel shaking his head.
“He’s a prototype of what you want to recruit [at cornerback],” Sawvel said. “I want a guy who runs, I want a guy with length, and I want someone that has some toughness to him. He’s got all three of those things.”
Murray played in all 13 games for the Gophers last season, mostly on special teams. They had two senior starters at cornerback in Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, and three junior college transfers behind them on the depth chart.
Wells moved to cornerback after playing safety last year, and ever since spring practice, Murray has played the other corner with the first-team defense. The three junior college transfers — Briean Boddy, Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar — still give the team important depth.
Murray is 6 feet and 194 pounds with sticky coverage skills. Sawvel said he still has plenty to learn, but the talent is obvious. So how did Murray remain so far below the radar in high school?
“Mainly because I went to a city school,” Murray said. “[Most programs] don’t highly recruit city schools because they say our conference is so bad that they really only recruit suburban schools. There are a lot of athletes in the city, but people fail to realize that.”
Murray said he wasn’t even sure he would play college football. Growing up, he didn’t cheer for Wisconsin or any other school.
Through his junior year at Riverside, he mostly played offense. He showed off his receiving skills at a Gophers camp in June 2011, then returned for a second camp four days later, this time at cornerback.
In that second camp, with Sawvel watching closely, Murray went stride for stride with receivers such as Andre McDonald, who’s now a teammate with the Gophers.
“I had a good day,” Murray said. “I didn’t know too much about playing corner, so I just pressed up on people and just ran with them.”
The Gophers offered a scholarship but made it clear they wanted him to play defense.
“I said, ‘Don’t be looking at the other end of the field; you’re coming as a corner, all right?’ ” Sawvel said. “And to be honest with you, that’s his demeanor. He’s sort of a nasty. He likes to mix it up [on defense].”
Murray returned to Riverside for his senior year and was named first-team all-state as a defensive back, but his two-star rating never changed.
“If Eric Murray committed to Minnesota, and then got offered by Georgia, he would have gotten another star or two,” Sawvel said. “And it wouldn’t have been because he changed as a player. It would have been because somebody else said he was pretty good, too. That’s why you make your own evaluation.”
Murray might have flown under the radar during high school, but the Gophers coaches have been buzzing about him since spring practice. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys cautioned things a bit recently when asked if Murray had the potential to be a shutdown corner — someone who could win battles with the best receivers in the Big Ten.
Claeys said Wells was the one who came to mind as a shutdown corner. Murray? He still has a lot to prove.
“He’s going to have to be ready, though, because people are going to see Derrick and they’re going to go get [Murray],” Claeys said. “So we’re going to know early on if Eric’s a shutdown corner or not.”