DeMarco Murray’s 25-carry, 253-yard debut as the Cowboys starter bested Emmitt Smith’s single game rushing record for the team. As with most accomplishments of this kind, the performance tends to be the product of a confluence of factors: a weakened defense, a big lead, and talent allowed to get into a rhythm. With Sam Bradford on the bench nursing an ankle sprain and the Rams defense consistently folding early in contests, St. Louis was clearly a big part of the equation. But let’s not forget that Cowboys starter Felix Jones had only one game this year where he exceeded 60 yards rushing and the Rams defense’s worst performances against the run came at the legs of LeSean McCoy and Ryan Torain. If you combine the totals of these two backs, they only bested Murray’s output by four yards.
Murray may not go on a streak that Corey Dillon did over a decade ago during his rookie year or like Jerome Harrison’s 2009 stint with the Browns, but the third-round pick of the Cowboys is not a fluke. He was my No.4 runner in the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio and a runner I saw up close at the Senior Bowl practices. He was the best back on the North squad and I heard two former running backs-turned running back coaches label Murray as a potential thoroughbred.
In a Q&A that I conducted with Murray at the Senior Bowl for the New York Times Fifth Down, I was impressed with Murray’s mature approach to the game and desire to hone his tools to become a better athlete and football player. He was one of those few players where his words and intentions matched his growth on the field.
One of the most revealing performances I witnessed during Murray’s college career came during his junior year versus Kansas State while playing on an ankle injury that limited his agility and explosiveness – two hallmarks of Murray’s style that helped him rise rapidly into the consciousness of college football fans as a freshman. It was this game where Murray showed me that he might have been injured frequently but unlike many players, he could play hurt and play effectively. I also believe it was during this period of struggle than Murray became a more mature runner, because he learned to take what a defense gave him rather always try to use his physical gifts to break the big play.
RSP Notes for DeMarco Murray vs. Kansas State 10/31/2009 (OU 42 – KSU 30)
Rushing Stats: 15 carries, 62 yards, 2 touchdowns, 4 first downs.
Receiving Stats: 4 targets, 4 receptions, 28 yards, 1 touchdown.
Pass Protection: 4 assignments, 4 blocks made.
Overall Score: 82 (When healthy, Murray earned scores of 87, 89, and 91 in subsequent evaluations, which placed him in the realm of starting caliber back with borderline franchise ability)
Power: Murray did a good job of lowering his shoulder and getting yards after contact against a linebacker in the flat pursuing from the inside and delivering a shoulder on the runner. The collision knocked the linebacker to the ground and forced the defender to wrap Murray’s leg to prevent the runner from getting the first down and likely a lot more on this run with 10:08 in the first quarter. On a 2nd and 1 situation just two plays later, Murray did an excellent job of getting his pads low and making himself small in the crease to get past the first down marker just before he was hit head-on by the linebacker. On this play, Murray kept his legs moving, gaining additional yardage before defenders piled on. Once again, Murray lowered his pads into a linebacker and ran through the initial hit, gaining five yards before that same defender reached from the for Murray’s ankle to bring the runner to the ground on this play with 5:58 in the first quarter.
On at two-TE, I formation run on 3rd and 1 with 12:05 left in the game, Murray was initially stopped behind the line of scrimmage on a run designed to go behind left guard. Murray was able to keep his legs moving and drag the defender wrapped around him across the first down marker. Murray flashes a determined running style as a short yardage back. With 11:00 left in the game Murray ran through two arm tackles on a run off left tackle from the I formation for a five-yard gain.
Ball Handling: Murray carried a swing pass in the left flat with his inside arm because the cornerback coming at the runner from the inside actually broke down to hit Murray’s outside shoulder. A moment later when a linebacker came from the inside to hit Murray, the runner showed the presence of mind to lower his outside shoulder into the defender and knocked the LB to the ground while still protecting the football.
On a 3rd and 1 carry off left tackle for an eight-yard gain and a first down to start the second quarter, Murray did an excellent job of switching the ball from his right arm to his left just as he reached the edge of the formation where the linebacker coming from the inside delivered a hit. Murray used his free arm to then shrug off the contact.
Elusiveness: Murray made a nice dip inside the cornerback who broke down too soon in the flat on a reception of a swing pass that Murray took for nine yards. In this game Murray doesn’t appear to be running very fast, but his noticeably fluid with his movement and quick to make a last-second move to set up defenders successfully. The dip I just described was set up with a shoulder shake and he did a nice job of stringing these two moves together with a compact, controlled gait.
Murray made another excellent dip inside the safety while running at full speed during an 18-yard run. The safety had an angle over the top and Murray made him whiff with this move. In fact, Murray made three nice cuts on this play. The most dramatic was this dip to the inside.
On 1st and 10 with 9:46 left in the game, Murray caught a middle screen at the line of scrimmage and gained 11 yards with an excellent adjustment to get behind his blockers. The right defensive tackle ran a twist to begin this play and once the center let the RDT past, the defender recognized the screen and turned in pursuit of Murray just as the RB made the reception.
Murray knew that his two offensive linemen were ahead of him to his right, but he saw the RDT flash towards him just as he made this catch. Murray exhibited good concentration to catch the football and even better awareness to turn away from the defender and run towards the opposite hash. This change of direction left the RDT diving for air and gave Murray time to work his way up field. His acceleration and pad level on the play was good enough to split two defenders and duck under a linebacker to gain 11 yards after the catch and a first down. This was a reception where it appeared Murray should have been dropped for a minimal gain on two different occasions, but he managed to get the first down.
On a 2nd and 19 run from a spread formation headed towards right guard against a three-man defensive front with 9:00 in the half, Murray did an excellent job of hurdling a linebacker diving for his feet. He gained an extra four yards on the play.
On a 3rd and 1 hand off from an I formation, two-TE set designed to go off right tackle with 3:03 in the third quarter, Murray dipped inside a linebacker with a clean shot on him at the line of scrimmage. He gained four yards on the play for a first down. The most impressive part of the play was the Murray made a jump cut up field to get to the hole, saw the linebacker shooting untouched towards him and then made a second cut that appeared physically impossible: Murray was already leaning heavily to his left just as he was making his turn up the middle while coming out of his first cut. Somehow he managed to extend his left leg to his left and far enough away from his body as his right leg was still trailing behind him. Most of his weight had been on that left leg just a split-second before. Still, he managed a quick move to extend this leg again while the right leg could do a minimum amount to stabilize his balance. This move helped Murray completely avoid the linebacker’s hit and Murray leaped over the first down marker for a few extra yards. This was not a pretty cut, but a very heady and difficult maneuver.
On 3rd and 5 with 2:11 in the third quarter, Murray caught a circle route where he began the play flanking the QB’s right side. he dipped over the middle, caught the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage, and took the ball up the middle of the field. He executed a stutter and then a cut to the inside of his lineman a few yards down field. He then juked the corner before pushing the pile of two defensive backs that had converged on him. A very nice job of stringing moves together for the first down on this pivotal third-quarter play.
Balance: On 2nd and 1 from the I formation with 9:50 in the first quarter, Murray took the exchange and veered outside his lead fullback who cut the left defensive tackle. Murray did a fantastic job of getting his pads lower than the linebacker greeting the runner with his pads a low angle. Murray knocked the defender to the ground about a foot shy of the first down marker and then dipped inside the hit and falling forward for a gain of four yards and the first down. This move reminded me a lot of Edgerrin James. I haven’t seen a college runner get this low in anticipation of contact in quite awhile – an excellent run after contact.
On an eight-yard gain off left tackle from the I formation to begin the second quarter, Murray ran through two hits, shedding the first glancing blow from the linebacker coming from the inside and then lowering his shoulder through the safety’s hit to earn a few extra yards before he was gang tackled.
Murray bounced off a hit to his thigh on a 1st and 10 run off right guard for a five-yard gain with 2:32 in the third quarter. The carry was from the I formation and the hit came about halfway through his attempt.
Speed: Murray demonstrated excellent burst on 3rd and 4 run from the Diamond formation, taking the ball around left end. Once he reached the edge, he planted his foot and burst down hill, beating a good angle from the defensive end coming from the inside just a yard behind the first down marker. Murray also beat the angle of a cornerback coming over top from five yards away, earning 18 yards on the play for a first down.
Murray’s reception on a middle screen at the line of scrimmage with 9:47 left was a great example of his burst to beat the RDT recognizing the screen. His acceleration to split two defenders from a cut that took Murray initial backwards and forced him to restart his movement forward was eye-catching.
Blocking: Murray shot a little too low on a cut block of a DT on the opening play, a short pass from a pistol formation. Murray still took out the defender’s legs, which prevented a hit on the quarterback. On a 1st and 10 with 9:33 in the first quarter he shot a little too low once again. This time the opponent was a DE. Murray still managed to collide hard with the defender charging up field and this hit altered the defender’s path just enough for QB to make a clean throw. The collision could be heard in the stands.
On a 3rd and 7 pass play with 2:38 in the first quarter, Murray took on the DT twisting through the gap off RG. Murray didn’t deliver a punch as much as he leaned into the defender. The runner did get good hand placement and he stood his ground long enough for the quarterback to complete the pass for a 10-yard gain.
Two plays later, Murray picked up a linebacker’s blitz off right end on a 3rd and 2 pass play. This time Murray delivered a decent punch and sustained position with his hands in the defender’s chest, funneling the defender further to the inside. Murray made a nice play, but he also initially dropped his head as he initiated the contact and NFL defenders will routinely beat him if he has this kind of lapse on a regular basis.
Murray did a good job of getting position on a linebacker rushing off left end on a 3rd and 3 with 6:24 in the third quarter. The play still resulted in a sack because Murray’s teammate, the left guard whiffed on the second blitzing LB up the middle.
Murray once again shot a little too low on a cut block against a linebacker coming off the right edge on a short pass to the OU fullback with 3:35 in the third quarter. Murray got contact to the thighs of the defender, but his angle of approach was off-target and he slid on his knees into the defender rather than placing a shoulder into his opponent’s waist.
Vision: On 2nd and 1 from the I formation with 9:50 in the first quarter, Murray took the exchange and veered outside his lead fullback who cut the left defensive tackle. Murray did a fantastic job of getting his pads lower than the linebacker greeting the runner with his pads a low angle. Murray knocked the defender to the ground about a foot shy of the first down marker and then dipped inside the hit and falling forward for a gain of four yards and the first down. This move reminded me a lot of Edgerrin James. I haven’t seen a college runner get this low in anticipation of contact in quite awhile – an excellent run after contact and good decision-making to take on the defender rather than try to make the defender miss.
On a 1st and 5 run with 8:53 in the opening quarter, Murray didn’t have much room to cut after he dipped inside his pulling linemen so he lowered his pads into the linebacker in the crease and drove the defender backwards for a gain of one yard. It was a mature decision and he prevented a loss on the play.
On 3rd and 4 with 8:32 in the first quarter, Murray took the exchange towards left end behind two lead blockers from the Diamond formation (a quarterback in the shotgun with wing backs flanking him to the left and right and a tailback two yards behind. Murray was the wing back to the right of the quarterback on plays from this formation). and he demonstrated good patience to wait for the tailback to cut block the edge defender. He then cut down hill through a nice crease in the flat for an 18-yard gain, making a nifty dip in the open field to avoid the safety. If the pursuit didn’t catch Murray due to the runner’s dip to avoid the safety, the runner likely scores from 53 yards.
On another Diamond formation run to left end a few plays later, the defense strung out the play, but Murray patiently waited for his edge blockers to get contact and then spilt them with great pad level and gained a few yards by driving the linebacker waiting for him on the other side of the crease. It was a no-nonsense decisiveness that belied his big-play reputation. He continue to punish defenders in this game, making mature decisions to keep his team in good down and distance situations.
He made an excellent adjustment to cut outside the right defensive end and and lower his pads into a linebacker to earn five yards on a spread formation run with 6:00 in the first quarter. It was a quick reaction that he made within a step of receiving the exchange.
His run after the catch on a middle screen with the RDT twisting past the line of scrimmage within the periphery of Murray was a great example of peripheral vision to turn a potential loss into a first down.
Receiving: Murray dropped his first target, a short drag route to the left flat off play action from a single back set on the second offensive play of the game. Murray initially caught the ball placed at his back shoulder, but the linebacker in the flat wrapped Murray and ripped the ball loose.
On 3rd and 10 with 14:24 in the first quarter Murray made a nice catch of a screen pass in the right flat. He used his hands to snare the ball and he demonstrated patience to wait for his blockers to set up the corner to the flat. However, Murray didn’t know there was a defensive end trailing him before he even caught the ball and he was dragged down for a gain of a yard.
Murray’s next catch was a swing pass on 1st and 10 with 10:08 in the first quarter. he caught the ball in the left flat with his hands about four yards behind the line of scrimmage and tucked the ball before turning up field. He was targeted on a 10-yard out as the slot receiver on 2nd and 7 with 2:41 in the first quarter, but the pass was overthrown.
His catch of a middle screen for 11 yards on 1st and 10 with 9:46 in the fourth quarter was a sound catch. He also caught a crossing route and a circle route in this game with his hands.
Overall Positives: I’m extremely impressed with the maturity that Murray has acquired as a runner. He has the lateral cutting skill, change of direction/wiggle, and speed to make defenders miss to generate huge gains. But when called for, Murray can run the ball with the pad level, no nonsense decisiveness and smarts of a back that commonly has a fraction of Murray’s athleticism.
The most impressive aspect of what I just described is that he generally knows when to turn on the flash and when to be the punisher. He’s not the power runner that Mark Ingram is, but he might be more versatile. He’s more elusive, faster, and solid in pass protection and as a receiver. He’s not as sound of a blocker as Ingram, but every bit the receiver if not better.
Murray has a gliding style, but he’s also physical. He moves a little like Darren McFadden, but with better techniques. I think Matt Forte could be a better comparison.
Overall Criticisms: Murray’s blocking needs more work. He tends to shoot too low on cut blocks and he has to be more consistent delivering an initial punch. He’s missed games due to four injuries. His running style is stiff in the hips like Darren McFadden, but he manages to generate more power and he can get his pads much lower than the Raiders runner. If he can improve his flexibility and stay healthy he’s a great all-around prospect as a runner, receiver from the backfield, improving pass protector, and kick return specialist.