Hopewell High School head coach Ricky Irby had a busy week. Just over the past couple of days since Monday, Jan. 27, Irby hosted visits from Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Ohio State’s Ryan Day. They were all interested in junior running back TreVeyon Henderson, a class of 2021 four-star recruit who ranks as the No. 4 running back in the country on Rivals.com.
On Thursday, Jan. 30, Oklahoma played its hand by flying its new running backs coach DeMarco Murray to Hopewell, Virginia. Murray talked with Irby and his staff for an hour, and he wanted to know more about how Henderson is on and off the field. After the meeting, Murray signed autographs and took pictures with teachers and students who recognized him.
Athletic Director Kerry Gray & Head Football Coach Ricky Irby pictured with Oklahoma Running Back Coach DeMarco Murray today at HHS. @CBS6SportsSean @marcdavissports @HopewellSchools @804Varsity @HopewellFB @TheRVASportsNet @NatalieKalibat @804football pic.twitter.com/z5hnygXyBp— Hopewell Blue Devils Sports (@HHS_VA_Sports) January 30, 2020
“He played in the league, and the high school kids know who he is,” Irby said. “It gives (Oklahoma) instant credibility. It’s a pretty big deal.”
“It’s a pretty big hire.”
That Thursday in Hopewell was Murray’s second day on the job after having been named an Oklahoma assistant on Wednesday, Jan. 26, after spending one year as a running backs coach at Arizona. He’s one of the flashiest OU hires in recent memory, if not the flashiest.
As he walked the halls of Hopewell High School, Murray carried impressive accolades from the college level and from the NFL. Murray ran for 3,685 yards and 50 touchdowns in his four years of eligibility at OU, where he’s had two seasons of running over 1,000 yards. For the Dallas Cowboys, he ran for 4,526 yards and 28 touchdowns. In 2014, he rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns, and tallied 2,261 scrimmage yards, and won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award in 2014.
He finished his seven-year NFL career with 7,174 rushing yards and 55 total touchdowns, sealing his fate as one of the most dominant running backs of the decade. Now, he’s back in Norman to lead the next generation of Oklahoma running backs, with a locker room that includes the returning star power of redshirt junior Kennedy Brooks, senior Trey Sermon, junior T.J. Pledger and senior running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who combined for 2,065 rushing yards in 2019.
Murray has seen the best of both worlds when it comes to experience in college and in the NFL. His experience will be critical for molding current and future running backs for a school that boasts alumni from the likes of himself, Adrian Peterson, Billy Sims, Joe Washington and a slew of other notable names that competed in Norman.
But what will arguably be just as important as his experience is his name itself. Kids who are coming out of high school and nearing the beginning of their college careers most likely watched Murray play, which brings star power to OU’s recruiting tactics.
“A lot of those kids grew up watching him,” said former OU running back Jacob Gutierrez, a teammate of Murray’s in 2007 and 2008, the year he was a captain on the team. “To have him walk in your door and tell you, ‘I want you at my program,’ and to be able to be coached by him ... he lived it. He was there and walked those halls and sat in those (locker rooms), and he went through what he’s trying to get you to go through.
“That’s a lot different than someone who has no ties to a program and never played the position. It’s, ‘I’ve done this. Come do it with me.’ I think that’s huge.”
Murray is two years removed from his playing days, as he announced his retirement in 2018. A month later, he joined Fox Sports as a college football analyst before starting his coaching career at Arizona under head coach Kevin Sumlin, a former Oklahoma assistant from 2003 to 2007.
When Murray took the Arizona job, current Dallas Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete called him to see if it was true after hearing from colleagues he wanted to try his hand at coaching. Peete, who was coaching running backs for the Los Angeles Rams at the time, coached Murray for his first two seasons with Dallas and admits he was surprised. They still communicate to this day.
But after some thought, the shock went away, and the transition made sense. Peete, who has over 30 years of coaching experience in college and in the NFL, remembers going over game plans and watching him study before games.
“He was almost preparing himself each week as if a coach would prepare himself,” Peete said. “So it doesn’t shock me that he’s coaching.
“He has obviously tremendous experience at the position. The knowledge that he's gained over the years, he could obviously pass along to younger players that can help them develop into top-flight college players and potentially pro football players.”
With the amount of experience Murray has, he still wanted advice from his first NFL position coach. Peete told him his experience, although it would be massively helpful, could also be an obstacle, since Murray, being the sensational athlete he was, adapted to the college and NFL level rather effortlessly.
“The most difficult thing that you're going to have is, you caught on to things very quickly,” Peete recalls telling Murray. “It came very easily to you. And now, you're going to be explaining that to younger guys ... and you can't get frustrated if they don't get it right away.”
Peete also said Murray probably has one of the best learning abilities he’s ever coached and ranks him in his top three of that category. The other two running backs Peete ranks alongside Murray are the Rams’ Todd Gurley and the now-retired Matt Forte, who played for the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets.
Former teammates of Murray’s didn’t stay surprised at his move to coaching either. From words of encouragement to intense lecturing that football players all over the country have experienced, those close to Murray say those abilities were present in Murray as a young player.
“He is definitely very capable of getting in someone’s face,” said James Hanna, a former tight end for Oklahoma and the Dallas Cowboys. On both teams, he played with Murray. Hanna, who caught for 374 yards and a touchdown for Dallas, recollected a time when Murray tried to push him during a preseason game. “I was very tired, and I was showing it. I was not being mentally tough. I came off the sideline, and he let me have it. I kind of let him have it back.
“Having that ability to be vocal is important.”
Former OU tight end Trent Ratterree, after seeing Murray in this new chapter of his life, has memories of the encouraging side of his former teammate. Ratterree, who was a walk-on and played for the Sooners from 2008 to 2011, remembers Murray giving him team meals back when there were strict NCAA rules about free meals from the program, along with recollections of Murray’s ability to boost team morale.
“I think he expects the same expectations that he sets for himself, he sets for others,” said Ratterree, who now works for Rep. Kendra Horn. “And he expects them to rise to those. And I would say if any player can get even close to his expectations, then they're going to be a special player.”
At 31, Murray remains the youngest coach on OU’s staff, which is already a noticeably young staff. No one on the staff is older than 47 years old.
With Murray at an age that’s considered a playing age for an athlete, his football days are still fresh. He’s got the experience, the name and the ties to a school he had immense success at, and age is on his side. In the next eight months before the 2020 season starts, Murray will work with his former running backs coach Cale Gundy, now the co-offensive coordinator, which adds more familiarity for the young coach.
The flashy hire has certainly raised interest in the OU community, and time will tell if Murray’s experiences and coaching ability rubs off on the next generation of running backs. Sooner fans are hopeful, and those who know him best can’t see any reason to doubt him.
“He's a rising star when it comes to coaching because he gets it,” Ratterree said. “He knows the game. He's a really smart person. And he was obviously a very talented athlete. So I think whenever you have all those things combined, there's no question that you can be an extremely successful coach.”