Oklahoma football: Kenneth Murray is Sooners’ man in the middle

NORMAN, Okla. — Looking back on it, even Kenneth Murray admits he felt lost at times. He was an 18-year-old freshman playing middle linebacker at Oklahoma. There were times the limited experience caught up with him.

Oklahoma fans still remember the Rose Bowl. Murray had 9 tackles in that game, but there were several plays when he was out of position due to simple confusion.

Murray remembers those plays and just about every one from the 2017 season.

“It was a great experience, you know, learning all that stuff. Going through the year, I definitely learned a lot from Game 1 to Game 14,” he said. “Listening to my coaches and stuff like that. I learned a lot. I’m ready to get better and take another step this year.”

The Sooners are, in a sense, doubling down on Murray and his future at middle linebacker. Remember, he was recruited as an outside linebacker. The Sooners moved him to the middle as an experiment prior to the 2017 season. A preseason injury to Jon Michael Terry made Murray the permanent starter.

Still, as late as the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma’s defensive coaches thought about moving Murray back to his natural position for the 2018 season. But that’s been scrapped.

“We feel really good that it’s going to be a great position for him,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.

Big season expected from Kenneth Murray

There’s a belief that players make the biggest jump both mentally and athletically after their first season. The body is better tuned by a full year in the weight and conditioning program. The mind sharpens after a full season of the daily grind of college football.

Murray received a crash course in both in 2017. He was slightly ahead of the physical curve because he was an early enrollee in the 2017 recruiting class. Becoming an immediate starter was a surprise.

Some of it was due to the potential Murray brings. He was a freshman All-American after recording 78 tackles and 1 sack.

Murray looks different from most Big 12 Conference inside linebackers. The sophomore is 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds. He resembles an inside linebacker in the SEC or the Big Ten. It’s the shadow inside linebackers used to cast at Oklahoma until defending spread offenses slimmed them down. Murray looks like a linebacker.

But playing middle linebacker is the most mentally challenging defensive position. You’re the quarterback of it all. It’s not enough to know your responsibilities, you need to know what’s going on with the 10 around you.

That was information overload for Murray at times last season.

“I gained a lot of experience. I’m able to see stuff before it happens on the field a lot of the times. I’m able to react to stuff quicker,” Murray said.

Having more depth around him helps. Mike Stoops said Murray was kept out of live contact during most of last season’s practice because the Sooners couldn’t afford an injury. Having him in full pads for spring practice shows the injury fears diminished.

“I think it will be extreme for him, like a lot of our sophomores that played last year,” Stoops said. “We need him to make a jump and I think he’ll be a much more prepared player this year than he was a year ago.”

Oklahoma needs Kenneth Murray to lead

It doesn’t matter who you are, freshmen are nearly always followers not leaders. Murray was that way last season even though he started all 14 games. This season is different.

One thing that’s changed with Oklahoma heading into the 2018 season is there is a leadership void. Former quarterback Baker Mayfield shouldered so much of that responsibility that it’s impossible for one player to fill that gulf.

One of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s offseason goals is to make sure one player doesn’t need to try.

“We’ve got some really intriguing young potential leaders, guys that I think will be great at it, but we need them to be great now,” he said. “That’ll be just as important if not more important than how we develop them on the field.”

Murray wants to step up.

“Last year I was kind of a leader, but I didn’t know how to lead,” Murray said. “There’s a time and place when you have to say certain things. Learning when to say certain things, how to motivate my guys is what I’m really learning this year.”

The time to sit back was one thing Murray had to go without last season. So much came his way so fast. It was impossible to digest all of it.

The game still moves fast. There’s never enough time in the day to absorb everything. But Murray is catching more than he’s missing these days.

The post Oklahoma football: Kenneth Murray is Sooners’ man in the middle appeared first on Diehards.

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