COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For an 18-year-old true freshman making his first collegiate start, it would have been natural for Kyler Murray to have some nerves prior to his Texas A&M debut Saturday vs. South Carolina.
More daunting than the idea of being the guy in an SEC football game, however, was possible inclement weather, heavy rain that was forecast for Saturday throughout the state of Texas, including Aggieland. The storms cleared out of College Station before Saturday’s kickoff, much to the relief of Murray -- coach Kevin Sumlin sensed as much before the Aggies’ 35-28 win.
“He won't admit it, but I think we were all a little bit worried about the weather report,” Sumlin said of Murray afterward. “When we went to bed, it didn't look good. Nobody here knew what it was going to look like [Saturday]... When we got over here [and realized it wasn’t going to rain] I think everybody got real, real excited, in particular, he did, because that's a load off of you as a first-time starter in a monsoon, which was predicted the day before, and probably a load off of his coach, too.”
With conditions a non-factor, South Carolina’s defense didn’t provide significant resistance either as Murray racked up 223 passing yards, 156 rushing yards and accounted for two touchdowns in Texas A&M’s victory over the Gamecocks. Most importantly to Sumlin, Murray protected the football and did not turn it over.
Teammates said they could sense some nervousness early in the game but that subsided as the former blue-chip recruit from Allen (Texas) High School settled in.
“He came in there like it was Allen High, like he used to command those huddles,” junior right tackle Germain Ifedi said. “It doesn't matter that he had a bunch of seniors up there or that he's a freshman. He commanded the huddle as well as I've seen any 18-year-old command the huddle, and he's just going to get better.”
Said receiver Ricky Seals-Jones: “[I saw] poise. The first couple series in the beginning of the game you could tell he was kind of nervous, but then after he sat back and got stable, he let it rip and let it go and made plays.”
Murray made smart decisions and winning football plays, sliding numerous times when running to avoid hits from defenders and making accurate, safe throws most of the time (he was 20-for-28 passing). He was only sacked once and did well on third downs, carrying the ball four times for 31 yards and completing his lone touchdown pass on a third down. The Aggies finished a solid 6-for-13 (46.2 percent) on third down conversions.
“Operationally, he was clean,” Sumlin said. “I think he guessed a couple times early and the message was basically ‘Listen, settle down, just read it and make the proper read and let the game come to you.’… You can handle it. Just make a good decision with the football, and if there's a question at all, let's be safe and not 'Maybe hand it off or maybe do this.' When you're doing that in those conditions, for us not to turn the ball over, was a big deal.”
In the week preceding his start, as the Aggies hosted a three-way competition for the starting job between Murray, former starter Kyle Allen and sophomore Jake Hubenak, Murray made sure he was on top of things. He came in to meet with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital individually outside of the Aggies’ regular position meetings to “make sure he knew what was happening,” Sumlin said. When Murray was informed he was the starter two days before the game, he also communicated what plays he was comfortable running.
“The hardest thing for a young guy is to be able to tell a coach no” Sumlin said. “By that I mean when you sit down and say 'Hey, what do you like?' Every young quarterback is going to look at the playlist and tell you he knows everything, because he doesn't want to be embarrassed that he doesn't know that. So what we had to work through this week from Thursday was what he liked and what he didn't like.”
Sumlin called Murray’s communication with the teammates and coaching staff during the game “excellent.” There is still a long way to go for Murray, the much-ballyhooed recruit who A&M fans longed to see on the field. His debut was good, but there are tougher tasks ahead as defenses become more aware of him and adjust to his skill set.
“He understands his strengths and weaknesses and defenses are going to change a little bit for him and that's where the challenge is going to come from this week,” Sumlin said.