Sometimes statistics can help tell a story, but not Eric Murray’s story.
Interceptions? The Gophers senior cornerback has two for his whole career. Pass breakups? Murray has 13 over the past two seasons.
Yet here’s how Tracy Claeys describes the Milwaukee native: “He’s the best overall player that I have ever coached.”
To understand Murray’s impact on the Gophers, as he heads into his final college game Monday against Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, one must dig deeper.
It’s hard putting up traditional pass defense numbers when quarterbacks are trained to avoid you. So the Gophers coaches studied the film again recently, and here’s what they found:
• In six games this year, Murray was targeted two or fewer times.
• Only 12 percent of the pass plays against the Gophers — 49 of 401 — went Murray’s direction.
• The longest play he’s given up all year was 44 yards.
It’s hard to find Murray on the highlight reel, but experts say he’ll be a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft.
“I guess the best thing about him is he’s a very good player, but he is such an even-keeled, humble kid,” Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel said. “He’s not trying to draw attention to himself. He’s not doing a dance before a third-down play. He just goes and plays.”
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Heading into his senior year of high school, Murray had zero scholarship offers and no real prospects. So he set off on a tour, hoping to catch some coach’s eye as a wide receiver.
His first stop was Central Michigan.
“Central Michigan liked him but not enough to offer him,” said Patrick Wagner, Murray’s coach at Riverside University High School. “Northern Illinois liked him but not enough to offer him.”
Murray had one stop left to make — Minnesota. On the long drive there, he figured he probably was heading to Division III.
But he stepped into TCF Bank Stadium and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, piquing the Gophers’ interest. They weren’t sure he could be a Big Ten receiver but asked if he’d try defensive back. Murray agreed, trekking over from Milwaukee again for another one-day camp.
“It’s amazing,” Wagner said, “how one day can change a kid’s life.”
Murray knew very little about cornerback when the Gophers coaches first asked him to try it.
“Eric squared up against this kid they were talking about [Andre McDonald] and hit him so hard, he made the kid cry,” Wagner said. “Jerry Kill came up and said, ‘He’s pretty good. Why isn’t anybody looking at him?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He was a 3.0 [grade-point average] kid with a 20-something on his ACT.”
The Gophers offered a scholarship. By the time the Wisconsin Badgers called, it was too late; Murray had committed to Minnesota.
Now, Murray has reached the end of a quietly consistent college career. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last year and a third-teamer this year. The Gophers still feel he’s underrated.
• • •
Murray is closing in on an English degree. He likes Shakespeare but is known more to his friends for his love of “Family Guy,” Dave Chapelle and Pokemon.
In conversation, Murray comes across as all-business. He said his obsession in high school was becoming the next Roddy White, who was starring for the Atlanta Falcons at wide receiver.
“I started wrestling because they said Roddy White wrestled in high school, and that’s what made him good with his hands,” Murray said.
Wrestling junior varsity, at 171 pounds, Murray lost only one match.
“I wasn’t doing sophisticated arm bars and things like that — that wasn’t me,” Murray said. “I wasn’t really good on the ground because I faced people who had more experience than me. But I was more conditioned than everybody else, and I was quicker than everybody else. So I’d just shoot on people, let them get up and then take them back down.”
Wrestling played right into Murray’s competitive streak. So would cornerback, once he learned the finer points from Sawvel.
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Murray played mostly on special teams as a true freshman and has started at cornerback the past three years, notching 52, 69 and 64 tackles. A defensive captain this year, he added three forced fumbles.
“Eric was a mauler, and that’s what he is on the football field,” Sawvel said. “Eric would really probably rather hit you than intercept a ball.”
Sawvel said the Gophers have designed game plans around Murray’s ability to erase wide receivers. Since 6-foot, 199-pound Murray doesn’t need help from safeties, they can focus their attention elsewhere.
“My goal is really just to dominate people,” Murray said. “Not just cover somebody or just lock somebody down, but I can completely take away a side of the field.”
The low interception numbers don’t concern ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who projects Murray as a “Day 2” pick, somewhere in the second or third round.
“He’s improved as a tackler,” McShay said. “He’s very good as far as instincts. He doesn’t get out of position. He clearly works hard in the film room, and it translates to the field.”
After facing Central Michigan’s pass-happy attack, Murray will head to the Senior Bowl and likely the NFL combine. There’ll be no shortage of attention for a guy who once wondered if he’d ever get noticed.