Tag: Kyler Murray


How the best player in college football could change Major League Baseball

By Clinton Yates

ATLANTA — On the second floor of the College Football Hall of Fame, Kyler Murray sits at a small table in front of a display about the history of tailgating. Rocking a crimson Oklahoma University warm-up suit and Jordan 11 Concords, he looks right at home answering questions about the College Football Awards, where he would win the Davey O’Brien Award for the country’s best quarterback.

Earlier in the day, he won the Associated Press Player of the Year award. And he’d add to his collection later that weekend in New York, winning the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in the sport.

But this Saturday, his Oklahoma Sooners will face off against defending national champion Alabama in what could be Murray’s last game as a football player.

In November, Murray said he plans to give up football for baseball after this season. On Thursday, he said “nothing has changed,” though he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing in the NFL. “It’s never bad to have options,” Murray said.

Arguably the greatest quarterback in Texas high school football history, Murray was picked ninth overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB draft and agreed to a $4.6 million signing bonus. (Shockingly, he was still allowed to play one more season of college football.)

If the A’s can successfully keep Murray from the NFL, the impact on young athletes would be immeasurable. If the best college football player in America can be persuaded to play pro baseball, presumably his path can be followed elsewhere as well.

In other words, Major League Baseball has as much on the line as anyone during the College Football Playoff.

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray holds the Heisman Trophy after winning the award on Dec. 8.AP PHOTO/CRAIG RUTTLE, FILE

Murray’s football career is beyond storied. If you took Varsity Blues and mated it with Friday Night Lights, you’d get Allen High School. The school’s football stadium holds 18,000 people. (In 2018, the A’s averaged a little more than 19,000 per game at their home park.) The kid never lost as a starter and won three straight state titles.

At the same time, he was finding success on the infield.

“He started as a sophomore for us, but I still kind of saw him as a stud football player. But, man, he had some tools,” said Paul Coe, Allen’s baseball coach. “In his junior year, he just broke out. He hit nine home runs, led our team, led our team in stolen bases. He just took his game to another level that year.

“There was a point in time when he was doing a lot of the [football] stuff in the summer so he didn’t get to play as much baseball. Once he finished football and he started hitting baseballs in January and February every day? His game just took off.”

In college, playing baseball proved to be a time management challenge as much as anything. But Murray’s plan all along was to go to a school that allowed him to play both. After transferring from Texas A&M, Murray sat for two seasons on the Oklahoma football team behind Baker Mayfield, who went No. 1 overall in the 2018 NFL draft.

Getting two coaching staffs on the same page about how to improve a player in both sports is a discipline that not every coach is familiar with, but both Oklahoma’s football coach, Lincoln Riley, and baseball coach, Skip Johnson, were prepared to tackle for their star from the get-go.

“You know, he practiced with us as a team less than 10 times, show up at 5:35 for a game, [assistant] coach [Clay] Overcash would throw him batting practice, and [Murray would] go out and play the game and get two hits,” Johnson said. “Football and baseball coming together to help an athlete. That was what was more unique than anything, because I think that’s a special thing that a lot of people can’t say.”

Murray hit 10 homers, batted .296 and stole 10 bases in 51 games in 2018. It was a far cry from the previous season, which even Murray admits didn’t go well upon his conversion to the outfield.

“My first year playing baseball at OU, you would have thought I was garbage,” Murray joked in Atlanta. “It’s really windy in Oklahoma. It’s tough to read the ball off the bat. It wasn’t easy, so I had to work at that. The next year we made a big jump.”

Part of the success was due to the fact that both coaching staffs had figured out how to juggle Murray’s schedule.

“Balancing the baseball and football, the biggest challenge is on him, of course,” Riley said. “Every spring practice, just about this year, this guy would go through a full meeting, a full football practice. I’d give reps to him 10 minutes early so he could hustle over there and take five or six swings of BP and then go play college baseball at a high level.

“Traveling back and forth, very few days off, but the kid did it, and we learned a lot from last year. You look at kind of his success, he didn’t play much for us footballwise last year. When he did, he played well, but he had just an average year two years ago baseballwise. And I really think we all learned — us, our baseball staff and Kyler — how to manage it.”

Multisport stars are not entirely uncommon at the college level. But most aren’t playing for two squads that are nationally ranked.

Rusty LaRue is one of two people to actually play three sports in the same year in the ACC at Wake Forest. He chose to play pro basketball and won an NBA title with the Chicago Bulls. Charlie Ward, Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State in 1993, also picked hoops and had a 10-year career in the NBA. Brian Jordan made it to both the NFL and MLB from the University of Richmond. Deion Sanders has a 30 for 30 dropping soon about his decision to try to play an NFL and MLB game on the same day, and Bo Jackson’s career is so storied that he and Murray were directly compared in a throwback photo shoot. There’s also plenty of precedent for guys playing baseball then returning to football after the former didn’t work out.

All of these players had decisions to make, but the most recent example that compares to Murray’s was one with much less fanfare. Jameis Winston, quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was in the mid- to upper 90s with his fastball at Florida State. He wasn’t just a thrower — Winston could pitch. But he was nowhere near the hitter that Murray is, and his talent was beyond raw. 

“It really didn’t take that long to make that decision when you know you’re gonna be the No. 1 overall pick, you know you were gonna be a top pick in the NFL,” said Winston, who last year talked about possibly returning to the diamond. “I think it’s different in terms of the baseball draft, where being the No. 1 overall pick, you have to go to a lot of different farm leagues and you have to do this, that and the other. Even though you work your way up faster in baseball when you’re drafted in the first round, in the NFL, you’re straight right into it.”

Which has got to be baseball’s biggest concern.

Perhaps the nature of the games once you get to the pro levels changes Murray’s interest. But does a kid used to the bright lights and biggest stages really want to spend time working on fly balls with the Beloit Snappers? If so, and he makes the majors, his health and his financial upside are decent, but it certainly wouldn’t be the kind of money he could make as a first-round pick who makes it to a second contract in the NFL.

Murray has thrown for 4,053 yards, 40 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, and rushed for 892 yards and 11 touchdowns.MATTHEW VISINSKY/ICON SPORTSWIRE

But he’s still less than 6 feet tall, which is not ideal for an NFL quarterback. And the growth he’s exhibited in a few years on the diamond has been remarkable, hence the high draft selection.

“I think outfield’s going to be his future because he hadn’t spent a lot of time on the dirt,” said Johnson. “He could probably play second base — I mean, you go into instructional league and stuff like that — but I think this guy’s going to make the jump as he goes through. He’s going to learn more and more because his aptitude is really, really high. He’s really smart.

“He’s a really quick-twitched kid, so we want to give him an approach where it gave him a lot of rhythm in his swing. I think that was a big deal for him. He works extremely hard. A lot of people, they work hard to be good, but he works hard to be great.”

When Murray plays baseball, his socks come above his knees where they tuck into his pants, just like on the football field. The look isn’t exactly unorthodox, but it certainly is a style that people who care about these things notice. He knows that America’s pastime needs a swag injection, which he takes seriously.

“If I’m going to be honest with you, it’s hard to watch baseball on TV,” he said with a laugh. “I like players with swag. There’s not many of those guys in the league. But Cargo [Carlos Gonzalez], Bryce [Harper], Mookie [Betts], obviously, he’s a dog. There’s a lot of good players. I feel like it’s something we need more. But I definitely feel like the game is getting that way.

“You look at the Futures Game, you know there’s kids of color all over the field, it’s just what it is. If it keeps going in that direction, the game’s getting more athletic, a lot of dudes [in the pros] are more athletic than they’ve ever been. Guys are throwing 105 [mph]. It’s getting out of hand, honestly. I mean, dudes are hitting the ball further than they ever have. I don’t know, the game’s changing for sure.”

For all the diversity programs, showcases and camps that Major League Baseball wants to create, implement and help foster, there’s no equal to the best college football player in the country choosing to play your game as a way to send a message to young kids that it’s a sport worth pursuing. Letting athletes know they don’t have to dedicate their entire lives to one game in order to get a shot at the next level is almost antithetical to the underpinnings of youth baseball at this point. Specialization rules the roost and gets the most eyeballs.

The A’s selected Murray ninth overall in the 2018 MLB draft.AP PHOTO/JEFF CHIU, FILE

More selfishly, just seeing what Murray can do if he becomes a full-time baseball player is something the sport deserves. He’s effectively never done just baseball. Getting to meet the A’s in Oakland in June gave him a small look at the life.

“When I was in Oakland, it was just like, ‘These dudes get to do this [every day],’ ” Murray said. “They wake up and that’s all they’re doing is baseball. I think it’s all reps. Once you get to do something every day, you get to go hard at it, I feel like you just get better at it.”

Murray is an excellent baseball player, plain and simple. He’s got easy power, quick feet and everything a scout could possibly want on the diamond. At every level, coaches said the more he played the better he got.

There’s just one potential problem: He’s better at football.

ESPN NFL Nation’s Jenna Laine contributed to this report.

Kyler Murray surges past Tua Tagovailoa to lift Oklahoma to Heisman Trophy royalty

By Kevin McGuire

Lincoln Riley was named the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners at the age of 34. He took over a program that was built to contend for the Big 12 and a spot in the playoff as the successor to Bob Stoops. Just two years into his coaching career, Riley now has as many all-time Heisman Trophy winners under his wing as some of the greatest coaches of all-time, including Alabama’s Nick Saban.

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray became the seventh all-time winner of the Heisman Trophy from Oklahoma Saturday night in New York. In a tight Heisman Trophy race that went down to the wire, Murray powered his way across the finish line in the voting while Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lost steam down the stretch.

Murray closed out the regular season riding a high that saw his stock soar past Tagovailoa, who had been the popular favorite for the first two-thirds of the season, if not the first three-fourths of it. As Tagovailoa was getting a bit banged up and having his worst game of the year against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Murray continued to produce big numbers in leading Oklahoma to the Big 12 championship game, scoring revenge against the only team to defeat the Sooners this season (Texas) in the conference championship. The odds swung in favor of Murray in the last couple of weeks, and the oddsmakers knew how this was going to play out.

The Sooners quarterback received 517 first-place points in the voting, while Tagovailoa only managed to secure 299 first-place votes from the ballots. Murray edged Tagovailoa for the 2018 Heisman Trophy by fewer than 300 total points, 296 points to be exact. Although this was a close race, and far closer than many would have predicted in mid-October, this final tally was not as close as many felt could be the case.

Did the conference championship games impact the voting? You bet

A look at the voting breakdown would seem to confirm the results of the SEC and Big 12 championship games certainly mattered to voters. Murray and Oklahoma played in the Big 12 championship game in the early afternoon timeslot on championship weekend. A total of 13% of the votes from Heisman voters had been submitted before that game began, with Tagovailoa accumulating 294 points to Murray’s 215 points. During the course of the conference championship games, Tagovailoa still held a lead on Murray as a few more ballots were cast, with the Alabama quarterback taking a 336-257 lead as the conference championship games were being played.

Murray made his early statement with a big day against Texas to capture the Big 12 championship. But then Tagovailoa struggled against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game with a pair of interceptions. He would leave the game banged up and Jalen Hurts would come to the rescue of the Tide. After the conference title games, the votes had to be submitted by the next day, and that was when Murray made his run in the voting.

Considering the outcome of the voting, you have to wonder how much wider the gap between Murray and Tagovailoa might have been had Heisman Trophy voters not submitted their ballots before the conference championship games. To be fair, some voters may not have felt the championship game performances would have swayed their ballots to go one way or the other, so getting their ballots in before the games might make some sense, but this may be a case for why voters should be required to submit their ballots after all the games have been played.

It’s also worth noting that Tagovailoa didn’t exactly run away with the votes out of the South. Murray received the most points in the voting in every region except the South, but it was really close. Tagovailoa received 375 points in the South, while Tagovailoa picked up 356. For a region dominated by the SEC, that is a bit surprising. Was there a bit of an anti-Alabama bias going on to hold down Tagovailoa in the south, or was the performance in the SEC Championship Game that woeful that even the voters in the region were more willing to vote for Murray?

Oklahoma’s Heisman campaign was amazing

Even if it got off to a late start, there was no denying that Oklahoma had the best Heisman campaign going for them. Playing off the two-sport stardom of Murray, a draft pick of the Oakland Athletics and now a player receiving some NFL draft buzz, Oklahoma rolled out a Kyler Knows campaign mimicking the classic Bo Knows ads featuring former two-sport athlete and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.

Sooners go back-to-back and tie Notre Dame and Ohio State for Heisman royalty

This was a big one for Oklahoma. For starters, having back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners is a rare feat that has only been accomplished four times in the history of the award. Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy last season, and his successor took home the trophy this season. The last school to do it was USC in 2004 and 2005 with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush (which of course has been vacated, but we’ll count it here because it still happened).

Murray’s Heisman Trophy gives Oklahoma a total of seven Heisman Trophy winners in school history, which is tied for the most all-time with Notre Dame and Ohio State. Dwayne Haskins finished third in the voting, falling well shy of being able to push the Buckeyes ahead of the Fighting Irish. And yes, USC also has seven all-time Heisman Trophy winners, with the one being vacated. Unofficially, USC is tied as well.

But for Lincoln Riley to step into his role as a head coach and already have two Big 12 championships, two College Football Playoff berths and two Heisman Trophy winners in as many years is simply astounding. Yes, Riley stepped into a very favorable position for his first career head coaching opportunity, but to be able to accomplish that much so quickly is simply unprecedented.

Riley now has as many Heisman Trophy winners as Nick Saban, Bobby Bowden and Riley’s predecessor, Bob Stoops. He has more Heisman Trophy winners than Urban Meyer, Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier (although Spurrier won one himself too). And Riley is just getting started with his coaching career at the youthful age of 35. He already has the ability to go on the recruiting trail and say definitively he knows what it takes to build a Heisman Trophy quarterback and that one of them went No. 1 in the NFL draft. We’ll see what the future holds for Murray, who continues to be connected to potential NFL speculation despite having a baseball career waiting for him in the A’s farm system.

If you had any doubts about Riley taking over Oklahoma in the fashion he did two springs ago, they should be gone by now. It may be too early to label Oklahoma redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Kendall the favorite to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy, but the way things are going in Norman, would it really be a surprise to see him in the mix if Murray moves on?