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Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

By Adam Rittenberg

Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

Eric Murray
Eric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."