OU football: Kenneth Murray wants to win the Butkus Award, and at least one former winner believes he deserves it
DALLAS — Kenneth Murray visited his new position coach last winter and noticed a change in the office's decor.
On the wall hung photos of Brian Bosworth, Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman, the three legendary linebackers who won the Butkus Award during their careers at Oklahoma.
“I want you to be up on that wall,” Sooner linebacker coach Brian Odom told Murray.
Murray made the preseason watch list for the award given to college football’s top linebacker, and his play so far this season has only strengthened his candidacy. He’s been disruptive and dynamic.
Saturday against Texas, he has chance to make a huge statement on a big stage. Murray will be front and center in the Red River Showdown. He will set the tone, helping to contain quarterback Sam Ehlinger and slow the Longhorn running game.
“A lot of times people say, ‘You make a play in this game, you can be remembered forever,’” Murray said.
He doesn’t shy from such opportunities but rather craves them.
It’s one of the many ways Murray has impressed Lehman.
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“It matters to him, his legacy at Oklahoma,” Lehman told me earlier this week. “He wants to be great.”
Lehman met Murray when he was invited to speak to the team last season. They exchanged phone numbers, and one thing Lehman, the 2003 Butkus winner, told Murray during the offseason was to trust the new defense.
“You’re going to be able to run. You’re going to be able to go downhill. You’re going to be able to make plays in the backfield,” Lehman said.
He realized what Alex Grinch’s scheme would mean for Murray. Before, he had to wait for the defensive line to act, keying off them before he could react. He also had to fend off offensive linemen regularly because the Sooners played only three defensive linemen.
Now, the Sooners play four on the line and the scheme dictates linebackers take a certain gap once they determine the offensive play.
“He knows what gap he’s responsible for, and he can aggressively go there,” Lehman said. “That’s what’s really unleashed him.”
The stats don’t necessarily indicate a huge change. Murray, who led the team in tackles a year ago, still leads the Sooners this season with 37. His tackles for loss (4.0) and sacks (1.5) are on par with what he had last season, too.
But watch film, and the difference jumps off the screen.
“In last year’s defense and the previous year’s defense, you saw Kenneth Murray cleaning up a bunch of other people’s mistakes,” said Lehman, who mentioned Murray often having to chase, dive, then try to drag down a ballcarrier. “It’s because he’s trying to save other people’s butt.”
Now, Murray initiates.
Lehman points to an under-the-radar play against Kansas as evidence of how great Murray is playing. Early in the third quarter, the Jayhawks faced a third and 10. Quarterback Carter Stanley took off running, and Murray was one-on-one in the open field.
“And he comes up and makes a flush tackle,” Lehman said of Murray. “Not a blow-up tackle. … You have to know when to make a certain kind of tackle.
“That measured play … shows that everything is clicking right now for him.”
Lehman isn’t surprised by how Murray is playing. He was so sure of what Murray was going to do Lehman took every opportunity this summer to predict he would be the Big 12 defensive player of the year.
Now, Lehman believes Murray is deserving of bigger accolades — the Butkus.
“I’m wanting him to win the thing this year,” Lehman said, “because I don’t know that he’s going to be able to stick around for his senior year. He’s playing so good he’s probably going to play himself into the draft.”
Playing in the NFL might be a long-term goal of Murray’s, but for now, he’d be content becoming OU’s next Butkus winner. He’d love to join Lehman, Calmus and Bosworth in the club.
He’d love a spot on his coach’s wall, too.
“I take it really personal to uphold that standard,” Murray said. “I take it really personal to be that guy for this defense.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.