Thanks to Kyler Murray's Remarkable Season, the Heisman Race Is a Lot Closer Than You Think
This story appears in the Dec. 3, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson might be the most intentionally bipolar play-caller in college football. Oklahoma junior quarterback Kyler Murray learned as much after watching video for six days leading up to the matchup in Morgantown on Nov. 23. So as he barked for the snap on fourth-and-five with 2:36 remaining in a game that would determine whether the Sooners would play for the Big 12 title and have a shot at the College Football Playoff, Murray looked at the two linebackers creeping toward the line of scrimmage at the West Virginia 40-yard line and wondered which side of Gibson he was about to see. "We knew it was either going to be drop eight," says Murray, "or they were going to bring the house."
The linebackers fell back. Just three linemen rushed. Murray watched as blue jerseys swarmed his five potential targets. The Sooners needed these five yards in the worst way. As the clock neared midnight in Morgantown, they led 59–56 in one of those shootouts that makes the casual football fan blow through bedtime and the pigskin purist want to puke. Murray had already passed for three touchdowns and run for one, but coach Lincoln Riley didn't want his team to score another point because that would mean giving the ball back. Oklahoma's defense, as maligned as its offense is celebrated, had already been shredded by quarterback Will Grier for 539 yards and four touchdowns.
Murray could try to outrace the defense, and he had, on a 55-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter that turned the Pythagorean Theorem into a lie. The Mountaineers' defensive backs took angles that would have allowed them to intercept any normal runner, but by the time they reached where A²+B²=C² on the field, A was already gone. But this time, with so many potential tacklers covering receivers within five yards and with one defender squatting in the middle watching the quarterback's every move, Murray couldn't risk running. Instead, he danced around the pocket, holding the ball in his right hand and waving his left like a symphony conductor: A week of meticulous preparation had led to a backyard play. After seven seconds of tapping and directing, he saw wide receiver CeeDee Lamb flash toward the left sideline. Murray flicked his right wrist. Lamb dived and cradled the ball. The Sooners bled the clock. They would now play for the conference championship and a chance to avenge their only loss, a 48–45 heartbreaker to Texas. They would have one more chance to prove their worth to the CFP selection committee.
Murray would also be able to give Heisman Trophy voters more to chew on. Yes, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has revolutionized the Crimson Tide offense and throws a ball so beautiful that his 22-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Henry Ruggs III on Nov. 24 against Auburn might be crowned the next Miss Alabama. For weeks Tagovailoa has been the runaway favorite, but the truth is that this is the best two-man Heisman race since Reggie Bush and Vince Young in 2005—even if not everyone realizes it's a race. In just about any other year, Murray would win in a landslide.
Time for an exercise: Guess which QBs are Heisman winners and which are this season's top contenders. (And keep in mind that Murray and Tagovailoa still have games to play.)
QB1: Yards per attempt: 10.6. TDs accounted for: 44
QB2: Yards per attempt: 12.0. TDs accounted for: 48
QB3: Yards per attempt: 10.0. TDs accounted for: 58
QB4: Yards per attempt: 11.5. TDs accounted for: 49
QB5: Yards per attempt: 11.9. TDs accounted for: 41
QB6: Yards per attempt: 10.2. TDs accounted for: 51
Using yards per attempt allows for comparison between QBs who play in offenses that operate at different tempos, and it helps separate the elite throwers from those who simply pile up yards by passing 50 or 60 times a game. Baker Mayfield (QB4) set the current FBS record of 11.5 last year at Oklahoma, while 2010 winner Cam Newton (QB6), 2013 winner Jameis Winston (QB1) and 2014 winner Marcus Mariota (QB3) failed to break 11. Murray (QB2) and Tagovailoa (QB5) are on pace to surpass Mayfield's mark. Murray's touchdown production is better (37 passing, 11 rushing) than Tagovailoa's (36 passing, five rushing), but Tua has led so many early scoring barrages for the top-ranked Tide that his presence has seldom been necessary in the fourth quarter.
While Tagovailoa is the better pure passer, Murray has outsized arm strength for his size and uncanny accuracy. He’s also usually the fastest player on the field. He often uses that speed to keep plays alive so he can throw downfield, but when the time is right, he’ll slip out of the pocket, turn into a blur and wind up in the end zone. What's most amazing is the pair’s efficiency. Both have completed more than 70% of their passes, and both must share stats with an explosive run game. Both have thrown at least 91 fewer passes than West Virginia’s Grier, who has played one fewer game. In the same number of games, Washington State’s Gardner Minshew has attempted 307 more passes than Murray and 344 more passes than Tagovailoa. That’s why voters need to examine Murray’s campaign carefully and savor the final few moments of his spectacular season. Because after January, Kyler Murray probably won’t play another football game.
He won’t go quite that far, but Murray came the closest he has all season to saying those words Monday. Murray has a contract with a professional franchise: the Oakland A's. The No. 9 pick in last June's MLB draft had it written into his deal—which included a $4.6 million signing bonus—that he could play football at Oklahoma this season. Afterward? He’ll probably join the A’s and embark on that career. "As of now, that's the plan," Murray told reporters in Norman on Monday when asked again about his future. Murray didn’t completely shut the door on football, but the latch seems ready to click.
He's already one of the best to run the kind of offense that has taken over college football and is starting to sweep the NFL, and with one more season, he could convince pro scouts that it doesn’t matter that he's just 5'10" and 195 pounds. But that decision would carry with it massive risk. If Murray is as good as A's executive vice president Billy Beane thinks, he stands to make a fortune without the possibility of getting broken in half by a 350-pound nosetackle. "There are great athletes in all sports," says Murray's baseball agent, Scott Boras. "The difference is the baseball players are the ones that can do the rare thing. They have bat speed. Kyler is the rare brilliant athlete who has bat speed."
That's what a baseball agent is supposed to say, but it's also not wrong. Murray is an outfielder with a rocket arm who can run and hit for power: He blasted 10 home runs with a .296/.398/.556 slash line and 10 steals in 51 games while splitting time between the baseball team and spring football practice. Unlike most NFL contracts, baseball deals are fully guaranteed. The financial upside in baseball is higher, but first, of course, Murray has to reach the majors.
Football success is no sure thing, either. Yes, the Browns made Mayfield the top pick in the 2018 draft, but Murray is at least two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. The game is changing, but is it changing fast enough for a team to take Murray in the first round? And how high in the first round? Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, the final pick of this year's first round, signed a deal that guaranteed him $7.6 million. That's probably not enough to convince Murray that baseball isn't the better option. "I don't want to start any controversy," Murray says. "I love the game of baseball as well. Things might have been different if I'd been playing the past three years instead of sitting on the bench."
This isn't how Murray's football career was supposed to play out. Remember that high school in Texas that built a $60 million football stadium six years ago? That's where Murray went. In three seasons as a starter he guided Allen High to a 43–0 record and three state titles. "He's the best Texas high school quarterback I've ever seen," says former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who signed Patrick Mahomes out of Whitehouse (Texas) High and landed Mayfield (Lake Travis High in Austin) as a walk-on with the Red Raiders. Soon after Riley took the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma in January 2015, he tried to persuade Murray to play for the Sooners. "If I'd had another two weeks, it might have changed his mind," Riley says. Instead, Murray signed with Texas A&M that year, expecting to eclipse his father, Kevin, who starred as the Aggies' quarterback in the mid-1980s—and was a minor league outfielder for one season.
When Kyler arrived in College Station just before preseason camp, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and coach, Kevin Sumlin agreed that even though Murray needed more time to master their passing concepts, he was too good to keep off the field. So they created a package for Murray to run in occasional relief of sophomore starter Kyle Allen. Murray won the starting job in October but couldn't keep it. That December, amid massive upheaval that included the eventual firing of Spavital, both Murray and Allen decided to transfer.
This time Riley got Murray. He figured he would sit out the NCAA-mandated year-in-residence and then take over when Mayfield's eligibility expired at the end of the 2016 season. Murray didn't count on the Big 12's tweaking a rule to allow walk-ons to transfer between conference schools without losing a year. That gave Mayfield one more season in Norman and forced a player who had always been the best on his teams to ride the bench. Murray loved Mayfield, but he hated sitting. "He's so competitive," Riley says. "Not as outwardly as Baker, but he's every bit as competitive. And he probably knew that at 99% of the places in the country, he'd be the one playing."
Murray took solace in destroying Oklahoma's starting defense at practice as the scout team quarterback. "Those plays he makes? He been doing that every single day at practice," Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly says. "He makes it regular. It's not regular. It's not normal." Last year Murray knew Mayfield was having a special season. He also believed he would surpass it once he got his chance. "This isn't something that just happened," Murray says. "And that's the thing. When you've had to sit out for damn near three years, everybody forgets what I'm capable of. The people closest to me knew what was going to happen when I touched the field. It was just a matter of when."
Because Murray does make the extraordinary look ordinary so often, it's difficult to pinpoint his most breathtaking play from this season. Was it the 51-yard dime down the seam to receiver Marquise Brown in the second quarter of Oklahoma's 48–47 win over Oklahoma State on Nov. 10? The 67-yard touchdown against Texas on Oct. 6, when he slipped between two defenders in the backfield, found a new gear and outran everyone? That romp helped the Sooners turn a 45–24 deficit into a 45–45 tie. But because the Longhorns drove the field and made a field goal in the closing seconds, Murray hates that game. "I can't even watch the s---," he says.
He'll have to this week, because Oklahoma will face Texas in the Big 12 title game. As for whether he's thinking about his future beyond this season, he says he's staying solely in the here and now. Perhaps the only other person who has walked in Murray's cleats understands what he's thinking now.
"We were playing Florida," says Charlie Ward. "That's what was on my mind. If we won, we'd be playing for a national title. The future—what profession I was going to pursue—wasn't really a thought at the time." In his final regular-season game as Florida State's QB in 1993, Ward was also chasing a championship and a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, scouts wanted to know whether he intended to play football or basketball as a pro. Ward, who did pull off the title-Heisman double, had also helped the Seminoles reach the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament as a junior point guard.
Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson played two sports as pros, but Sanders was a cornerback and Jackson a tailback. They didn't need to be at every practice and every meeting to be effective on Sundays. As a quarterback, Ward had to choose. He knew he didn't want to let down his basketball teammates, and playing hoops as a senior instead of preparing for the draft made his decision for him. Ward says Tony Dungy, then a Vikings assistant, tried to persuade his organization to take the QB in the opening round. On draft day the Chiefs called and suggested they might use a fifth-round choice on Ward. But he couldn't commit to being in camp because he intended to play in the NBA if he was a first-rounder in that draft. The Chiefs and the rest of the NFL moved on. The Knicks selected Ward in the first round that summer, and he played 11 years in the NBA.
Ward hears What if? a lot. What if he had forsaken hoops and dedicated himself to football? What if he played in the NFL now, when, despite being just over 6 feet, his skill set would have enabled him to put up huge numbers? Ward, who now coaches high school basketball in Tallahassee, is at peace with his decision. He hopes Murray will make the choice that also makes him happy in his 40s. "He's doing the right thing getting an opportunity to live out his football dream in college," Ward says.
What happens next for the newest two-sport star? Like Ward in ’93, he’s just trying to live in the moment. "I just try to go out there every Saturday and do what I've always done," he says. "That's play the game I love ... "
"And put on a show."
On some distant, muggy July afternoon, the A’s will face the Royals in the second game of a three-game series in Kansas City. Murray, then an 11-year veteran, will step to the plate and lace a ball into the gap between the left-fielder and the center-fielder. It’s a double for everyone else. He can still turn it into a triple. As the population of a half-empty stadium murmurs its astonishment, a fan in a crimson and cream cap bearing the letters OU will turn to his buddy. The first words that tumble from his mouth will be “I remember.” Then he’ll tell the story of a Heisman race for the ages.
The legend still won’t match what actually happened.