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How Kyler Murray operated Oklahoma’s offense to perfection

Murray was a play-action nightmare, and he used both his legs and arms to open up deep routes. His NFL team can borrow from OU’s playbook to get the most out of him.

Original image: Getty Images. SB Nation illustration.

Kyler Murray is probably one of the best athletes to ever be a college quarterback. He didn’t run through the usual combine or pro day tests, but he has elite quickness, breakaway speed, and the arm to hit downfield targets. Not counting sacks, he ran 122 times for 1,110 yards during his Heisman season at Oklahoma, with 12 touchdowns. With sack yardage, he still ran for more than 1,000 yards, as he got sacked on just 4.5 percent of his pass attempts. He avoided a lot of contact, protecting himself with baseball-like sliding skills.

It was rare for an opponent to get his hands on Murray anywhere near the Oklahoma backfield. He was just too quick. The super athlete threw for 11.6 yards per attempt, with 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Combining his runs and passes, he had 517 touches for 5,362 yards and 54 touchdowns. At 10.4 yards per touch, that’s roughly a first down per play. When he gave himself up to protect his body, he and the Sooners still came out ahead.

Here’s how Murray’s system at Oklahoma worked, how he operated in it, and what that can tell us about his potential to run an NFL offense going forward.

At Oklahoma, Murray helped make sure the offense played to its strengths.

In 2017, when Baker Mayfield was Oklahoma’s QB, the Sooners’ offense was really diverse and multiple. They based out of a spread set with 21 personnel — two backs, one tight end, with a full-time flex TE in Mark Andrews and a FB/TE hybrid in Dmitri Flowers.

While Andrews ran routes from the slot, it was Flowers’ job to hang around the box as a blocker and constant pop pass threat. OU was generally a spread-to-run team that mixed in play-action shots, but as its young receivers developed, it added more drop-back passes. Sometimes, a third receiver replaced Flowers.

In 2018, when Murray took over, things changed. OU returned multi-year starters at three offensive line spots and plugged in a potential first-rounder (Cody Ford) at right tackle and an elite recruit (Creed Humphrey) at center. But with Andrews and Flowers gone and a blazing-fast receiver corps having more experience, the Sooners spread their offense out.

So, OU’s strengths were in Murray’s unique skills, the overall run game, and the receivers. (OU had a lot of strengths.)

The Sooners became even more of a play action-oriented team, and Murray was great at making defenses wrong. Run schemes became that much more deadly, because Murray could keep the ball and either hand it off, run it himself, or throw it. They still made time to take play-action shots over the middle to their tight ends and fullbacks ... well as a normal assortment of perimeter screens, while also mixing in more opportunities for Murray to take deep shots off play action:

Murray throwing post routes to Marquise Brown off play action was one of the most explosive plays in Big 12 history. It goes up there with Robert Griffin III throwing to Kendall Wright off the power read and the post route tandem of Mason Rudolph and James Washington at Oklahoma State.

The rest of the offense also did a lot for Murray.

Part of what made the unit so special was how long Murray had to find receivers. Between the distraction of the Sooner run game, the superior blocking of the line, the seeming impossibility of successfully tackling Murray, and his arm strength, he was able to wait until the coverage downfield had devolved into man-to-man. Then he could fire:

OU’s passing plays were designed to attack specific coverages and create simple reads and one-on-ones for Murray to aim at. He was less effective when his read wasn’t there, and when defenses shifted late and forced him to re-diagnose coverages after the snap:

Murray wasn’t always good in the pocket, and he relied on his elusiveness to open things up more than than he relied on making quick progressions and reads. But covering all of OU’s receivers and beating that offensive line, then tackling Murray, was just too much.

Oklahoma finished No. 1 in Offensive S&P+, No. 1 in yards per play, and No. 1 in a bunch of efficiency and explosiveness stats. It was one of the best offenses in history.

Murray’s arm, speed, and decision-making ensured that all kinds of schemes to stop him fell short. He even burned the teams that actually beat OU.

A key to the Sooners’ success was that they stressed defenses in two areas at once: the line of scrimmage (via the run game and Murray’s legs) and deep coverage (via good pass-blocking, Murray’s ability to move around, play-action, and a bunch of skilled pass-catchers). The scheme was smart, and Murray’s abilities made it devastating.

The first of OU’s two losses was against Texas in the Red River Shootout. The Longhorns played their 3-2-6 dime package, trying to cover up the deep shots and then rally to the run game. OU’s three RBs that day turned 20 carries into 130 yards — good, but not as explosive as usual. Texas got enough red-zone stops and turnovers to squeeze out a win, despite Murray accounting for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns. Murray’s so fast that even when your game plan is to stop the run, things like this can happen:

In a rematch at the Big 12 Championship, Texas played a 3-3-5 nickel and focused on stopping the run, trusting DBs to hold up in coverage down the field rather than flooding the deep field with athletes. This time, OU ran 38 times for just 132 yards, but Murray threw for 379 yards and three scores with no turnovers in a Playoff berth-clinching victory.

The last game of Murray’s college career was the Orange Bowl semifinal against Alabama, and Nick Saban opted for a mix of nickel and dime. He kept both safeties deep more often than not, daring Oklahoma to win by beating tighter coverages with quick routes or beating a mammoth defensive line with the run and play action:

Alabama played great defense at the outset and built a 28-0 lead with its own potent offense, but then Murray started finding scrambling lanes, making difficult throws, and hitting receivers way downfield:

Alabama’s defensive game plan ultimately failed as the pass rush wore down. Murray threw for 308 yards while rushing for another 109. Oklahoma’s RBs could only punish the Tide for playing two-deep to the tune of 15 carries for 54 yards, and OU didn’t even really try to run them. But Alabama couldn’t keep Murray under wraps, as he scrambled for yardage or time until the Tide’s deep coverage defaulted to one-on-one matchups.

Alabama won, but Murray carved up the defense, and Oklahoma scored 34. Unless a defense was getting pressure on Murray and clogging his scrambling lanes, he’d find a way to beat it either on the ground or through the air. He was just too good an athlete, working in too much space.

The NFL has changed enough that a smart team could use some of the same tactics Oklahoma used to unleash Murray on the league.

In college, it was difficult to keep Murray out of his comfort zone. It was extremely difficult to corral him as a runner and hold up in the pass game against his arm.

Murray had a clear command of how Lincoln Riley’s extensive offense was creating matchups for his top receivers. If you couldn’t confuse him with disguises, he was going to find those matchups and put the ball in spots where his targets could make plays.

The comfort zone for Murray is where he can use his athleticism to boost the classic formula of using the run to set up the pass. It used to be that NFL teams would accomplish that aim with tall, strong-armed QBs who could see defenses and fire in throws with perfect timing. But football’s changed. The spread is everywhere and has lessened the need for a taller, quick-thinking gunner. Murray’s 5’10 stature is manageable, and his athleticism can open up options not available to every pro offense.

In some conventional NFL offenses, red flags might still go up about Murray’s ability to translate his athleticism and accuracy into consistent and winning production from the pocket. But hold up before worrying about that.

If the team likeliest to draft Murray actually drafts him, that’s not so great a concern. What happens if the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury can build a spread offense that uses Murray’s athleticism to help create a power run game and then generates matchups down the field?

How much easier might life be for the Cardinals’ maligned offensive linemen if they can leave defenders unblocked for Murray to read in the option? What if the guy they’re protecting is so quick that opponents can’t catch him and wear down trying? What if Murray’s play-action and RPO savvy keeps linebackers frozen a second too long, too often?

Then there’s going to be another precedent people will need to become worried about: How do you stop that in the NFL? Because we didn’t see anyone do it in college.