DeMarco Murray plays like first-rounder

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones routinely requests that his old buddy Barry Switzer studies college running backs, heavily weighing the former coach's opinions on the position while building the Dallas Cowboys' draft board.

Switzer didn't need to watch a single play from the film the Cowboys sent last offseason to strongly recommend Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray.

"The first time I ever saw him run the football, I knew the guy was special," said Switzer, who remains a legendary fixture around the Oklahoma program after leading the Sooners to three national titles in the 1970s and '80s. "When I saw him as a freshman, I thought he was a first-round pick."

Needless to say, Switzer thought Murray was a steal when the Cowboys selected Murray in the third round with the 71st overall pick. Switzer said as much about 30 minutes before the Cowboys went on the clock, when Jones called him from the Valley Ranch war room and put Switzer on speakerphone.

But Switzer didn't discuss Murray's impressive burst or tackle-breaking ability when he had the ear of all the Cowboys' coaches, personnel and scouts. Figuring they'd all watched the film, Switzer stressed that Murray is exactly the kind of guy Jason Garrett wants on his team, one who would study hard and stay out of trouble.

"It wasn't needed to discuss his ability," Switzer said. "I spoke more to his substance. He's an extremely intelligent, high-character individual that playing the game is very important to. That is so important."

So Switzer isn't stunned that Murray has had so much success, although it would have been a stretch to imagine a rookie setting the franchise record for rushing yards in a three-game span (466) in his first few weeks as the primary ball carrier.

Murray's reaction, or lack thereof, to his sudden rise to NFL stardom is even less surprising to those who know him well.

"It's too early to pat myself on the back and I'm definitely not going to do that," said Murray, often described as "serious-minded" by Garrett. "I have a long road ahead of me."

That's boring, but it's just what Garrett wants to hear. More importantly, it's genuine.

Murray's head didn't swell after he shattered Emmitt Smith's franchise record by rushing for 253 yards in an Oct. 23 rout of the St. Louis Rams. The rookie volunteered to take reps with the scout team in the next practice a few days later.

In fact, his coach at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas considers Murray to be humble to a fault.
Murray's lack of an ego often frustrated David White, who was also on the Oklahoma staff during Murray's record-breaking career with the Sooners and remains close to him. White always wanted Murray, a natural introvert, to play with the sort of swagger that sets a tone for a team.

"It took him awhile to believe what I was telling him," said White, a former all-conference tight end at UNLV who identified Murray as a rare talent before he played a down in high school. "That was the biggest frustration. He has the 'it' factor. It's just a matter of bringing it out in him."

Murray doesn't say much, but his competitiveness has never been questioned. One of White's favorite stories about Murray serves as an example of that.

During an offseason early in his Oklahoma career, Murray went through a workout on campus with a group that included Sooners legend/NFL superstar Adrian Peterson, who decided to add a little flair to the hurdles regimen that ended the two-hour session. Peterson showed off his freakish athleticism with a 360-degree spin as he cleared the final hurdle.

Murray, who broke many of Peterson' s OU running back weight-room records, followed that up by doing a 180-degree spin over his final hurdle and busting a back handspring when he landed.

"He's very quiet on the outside, but on the inside, he just has a deep burning passion to compete," Oklahoma running backs coach Cale Gundy said. "He'll compete as hard as anybody I've ever been around."

Yet, for all of Murray's athletic gifts and desire, confidence has been an issue for him. At least, that's what White and Switzer believe.

Murray set OU's record for all-purpose yards with 6,718, so it's hard to describe his college career as disappointing. However, a couple of significant injuries late in his freshman and junior seasons stunted his development and prevented him from fulfilling his potential -- and created durability concerns that caused him to slide in the draft.

He had to overcome the lockout that robbed him of his rookie offseason and a hamstring strain that sidelined him for all of training camp and three of four preseason games, but something clicked the last month for Murray, whose mental work while rehabbing impressed Cowboys coaches. The results have been remarkable.

Murray certainly looks like the lead horse the Cowboys' running game has lacked since Emmitt's glory days. He is averaging 6.7 yards per carry, by far the most of any back with at least 50 carries this season. (It's an off-the-charts 8.5 in the last three games.) Murray averages a league-best 3.14 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

"He's running harder than he has in a long time," White said. "That's because he's confident in what he's doing."

Added Switzer: "I really think he's just now getting back to the confidence he had as a freshman."
Of course, you couldn't tell that by talking to Murray. Nobody seems less impressed with his breakout month than Murray himself.

Odds are that Murray isn't even aware that Julius Jones put up stats that were almost as eye-popping during a three-game stretch as a rookie in 2004, the peak of an otherwise average career. Murray's combination of attitude and ability makes it a good bet that his brilliance won't fizzle out after a few flashes.

"Success is not going to change who I am or how I approach things," Murray said. "I'm still going to work hard like I'm a third-round pick still on the scout team."

Even though he's playing like the first-round pick Switzer saw the first time he watched Murray run.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.