NORMAN — Standing at home plate with runners on base, down by a run — and striking out — is one of innumerable factors that put Kyler Murray in position to win the job as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback.
The reality unearthed Wednesday was that the competition between Murray and Austin Kendall has been so, so close ever since it began last spring, but, coach Lincoln Riley said, Murray “was just slightly ahead.”
As they searched within themselves for new horizons, as they explored new ways of gaining on the other, Murray and Kendall found and utilized their own individual strengths.
It would be natural if things even got tense. Riley and other coaches were scrutinizing their every move — in real time and then over and over again on film. But Murray said in a press conference after Wednesday’s practice that tension never became a part of his daily routine.
Instead of overanalyzing things, instead of stressing over every rep, every throw, everything that Kendall did, Murray took a uniquely even-keeled approach.
A baseball approach.
“I wasn’t stressing about any of it,” Murray said. “Just, every day, coming in and working hard. I knew if I continued to get better then that should take care of itself.”
Perhaps approaching the competition with the mindset of a batter standing at the plate — that failing seven out of every 10 times was actually a valued measure of success — helped Murray advance past whatever shortcomings he might have displayed.
That goes double for his freshman struggles at Texas A&M, his decision to leave College Station, and his one season spent in redshirt exile.
The failures, to whatever degree, give him strength.
“I believe so,” Murray said. “Like I said, I’m ready to go. I think everything that’s happened to me has made me better in every aspect of the game. Like you said, baseball, it’s more of a mental game. You learn how to fail. You don’t learn how to deal with it. I’ve failed quite a few (times) in my life, not a lot, but in these past couple years, sitting out, you know, I’m not used to that. For me, sitting out has been a learning experience.
“And like I said, next Saturday, I’m ready to go.”
Riley agrees that Murray’s transformation from Golden Boy Texas Legend to Aggies washout to redshirt to backup to starter has been pretty dramatic.
“He’s certainly grown a lot,” Riley said. “I think maturity-wise, he’s grown a lot in every sense of it. I feel like these last two years were really good for him. He came in to A&M so heralded, so much hype behind it. To be able to come here, kind of catch his breath, learn from this program, the culture in this program, the people in it. To have different roles, go from being a scout-team guy and then being a backup last year, those were roles he’s never had to have in his life.
“It was all good for him, I think, to understand the whole process to be great. He’s gotten a lot better. He’s got a long ways to go. This is just the starting point here, but obviously I’m excited about his progress.
Riley said as recently as Monday that the race was too close to call. So he didn’t. Even after the team staged a scrimmage on Saturday, Riley said he didn’t have a winner. He even said it was the closest QB race he’s ever had.
But then this week began and the Sooners went into game prep for the Sept. 1 opener against Florida Atlantic and something shifted. Riley said the difference between Murray and Kendall surfaced in “just a couple more practices, honestly.”
Riley called both quarterbacks into his office on Wednesday morning and apprised them of his decision and how close it was and why he chose Murray.
“We put the same amount of weight or importance on each and every day,” Riley said. “I don’t know if we learned just something earth shattering in the last two days. It was just getting a chance to see these guys in a little bit more of a (game) prep mode, getting to see them against the scout team, working against some of our upcoming opponents and see them in a little bit of a different light. And then it gave us just a little bit more to look back on and make our decision on.”
How much more ready for big-time college football is Murray now than he was in 2015, when he was a freshman for the Aggies who played in eight games and eventually started three? He threw five touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Now the expectations are to replace the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick.
“I would say a lot more ready,” Murray said. “The preparation, sitting for three years — obviously nobody wants to sit for that long, but I think it’s helped me in a lot of ways. I think I’m pretty ready for it.
“I was just young,” he said. “Young. A lot of kids think they can come out of high school and do it at a high level. Some do, but I think a lot learn different. It takes a while to adjust to the game.”
As for being the next Baker Mayfield, Murray isn’t here to do that. He’s here to be the next Kyler Murray.
“There’s a standard here at the position,” he said. “You come here to play quarterback, you play it well. To me, that’s my job and I’m prepared to do that.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.