Eric Murray's value to Minnesota Gophers hard to quantify

MINNEAPOLIS -- There are both possible excuses and completely legitimate explanations available to Eric Murray, and he doesn't really bother with either of them.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the Minnesota cornerback is willing to admit that there's a personal statistic that is a bit lower than he might like. Position coach Jay Sawvel is willing to concede that it's even been a topic of conversation with his shutdown defender during spring practice for the Gophers as well.

And maybe there's a chance one of the most suffocating cover-guys in college football, and a potential first-round NFL draft pick next year, would be more of a household name, not only nationally but even within the Big Ten, if there was more than one career interception on his résumé. But considering everything else the rising senior provides for Minnesota, the truth is nobody there seems to care much about it at all.

"I really don't think about the number," Murray said after walking off the practice field last month. "I just worry about doing my job, and if I'm put in the position and I'm able to do extra, I will do that.

"I do get my opportunities and I just have to make the most of my opportunities when they come.”

His chances come a bit fewer and further between than most cornerbacks for a couple reasons, starting with a reputation that doesn't require eye-popping numbers to intimidate opposing quarterbacks and continuing with the responsibilities the Gophers place on him in the secondary.

Minnesota was often content last season to simply leave Murray in press-man coverage and let him lock up an entire half of the field, taking advantage of his technique, aggressive mindset and athleticism by shifting personnel and gaining an edge elsewhere. That helped lead to some prime opportunities for teammates like Briean Boddy-Calhoun on the other side of the field, and Murray's partner in crime made the most of them with 5 interceptions -- and a first-team All-Big Ten selection from the media.

Boddy-Calhoun was certainly deserving in his own right, and he's a proven ballhawk who also forced two fumbles and recovered another on the way to his individual honors. And while it's the combination of the two cornerbacks that make passing on the Gophers such a dicey proposition, the role Murray plays in making them so dangerous in the backend can't merely be quantified by picks, which often leaves it overlooked.

"I think it's one of those things where he's really, really good at so many things,” Sawvel said. "He's a good tackler, he's a great blitzer, he's a tremendous special-teams player, he's very, very good in press coverage to the point where a lot of times a play will just break down. There are a lot of times that he doesn't show up in a play, but he's a big part of our success in it because of what he does for us in the style of football we play.

"I really think like this, if Eric Murray comes out of this year and he has three or four interceptions this season, he'll probably be a first-round pick -- provided he does the other stuff the way that he does. We have talked about it, and I look at it this way, he just needs to get better at finishing some things."

Occasionally that might be out of his control, like the dazzling interception against Penn State that was called back because of an offside penalty on a defensive end. Sometimes it's just a matter of inches, like another possible pick two years ago that was overturned on replay.

Murray isn't one to dwell on those near-misses, and there have also been a couple drops along the way that could have given him and the Gophers a statistical boost. When he's thinking about interceptions now, though, Murray's focus is solely on finding ways to get them in the fall, not explain why he hasn't nabbed more in the past.

"When I look at it myself, I have to really be critical when I evaluate," Murray said. "There's always room for improvement.

"And, I mean, it's in the back of my mind. When I see Briean doing his job and taking it the extra mile [with 5 interceptions], it just makes me want to make those plays too -- along with the plays I'm already making."

There are plenty of those available already to count. Adding a few picks to go along with them is really the only thing left for Murray to give the Gophers.