Anyone who watched the opening drive of Oklahoma’s game against West Virginia last November probably came away thinking that Kyler Murray had a bright future as the Sooners’ starting quarterback. With Heisman Trophy winner and future No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield suspended as punishment for unseemly sideline behavior the previous week at Kansas, Murray wasted no time building an Oklahoma lead that would ultimately expand into a 28-point winning margin. On the first play of the Sooners’ first series, Murray faked a handoff, spotted a lane along the line of scrimmage and dashed 66 yards to set up first-and-goal. The next play ended with running back Rodney Anderson celebrating a four-yard touchdown run.
The open-field burst Murray displayed on that long scamper against the Mountaineers—along with his passing efficiency, recruiting pedigree and snug fit in head coach Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid offense—established him as the clear frontrunner to succeed the NFL-bound Mayfield as Oklahoma’s No. 1 QB for the upcoming season. But what if Murray isn’t even on the Sooners’ roster when they welcome Florida Atlantic to Memorial Stadium for their Sept. 1 opener? However remote that possibility may seem at first blush, it cannot be completely discounted. Murray is viewed as an elite prospect in this year’s Major League Baseball amateur draft, which begins on Monday night.
Whether you’ve been following Murray and his dual-sport potential since high school or just getting familiar with him now, there’s a decent chance you have some questions about what lies in store for him. Below is an attempt to provide some answers about Murray’s options and what they could mean for Oklahoma this season.
Huh? Kyler Murray is really good at baseball?
Murray was a two-sport athlete at Allen (Tex.) High, but he was known primarily for his sterling run as the school’s starting quarterback. He guided the Eagles to a 42-0 record and three consecutive state championships in Texas’s highest classification while compiling 14,500 rushing and passing yards combined along with 186 touchdowns, and was named the 2014-15 Gatorade National Player of the Year. Murray signed with Texas A&M—where his father, Kevin, played quarterback in the 1980s—and was rated the No. 1 dual-threat and No. 3 overall QB recruit in the class of 2015, according to the 247Sports Composite. (The two QBs rated higher than him: 2018 first-round draft pick Josh Rosen and two-time transfer Blake Barnett.)
Yet as Murray’s prep career wound down and he prepared to leave Allen for College Station, it was baseball, not football, that offered a more straightforward path to Murray becoming a successful pro. Murray shined as an infielder for Allen, earned high marks from scouts for his speed and power, and became the first athlete to be invited to participate in the Under Armour All-American football and baseball games. Despite a shoulder injury that limited him during his senior season, Murray was regarded as one of the top prospects in the lead-up to the 2015 MLB draft. In late April of that year, ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him 29th in the class.
Had Murray decided in 2015 to abandon football in favor of pursuing baseball, there’s a possibility he would have been picked in the first round and earned a multimillion-dollar signing bonus. Instead, he chose to opt out of the draft and play both sports at Texas A&M. That plan broke down when Murray decided to transfer away from the school in December of 2015 after appearing in eight games and making three starts at quarterback for the Aggies while splitting time with fellow Texas-based, blue-chip QB recruit Kyle Allen. (Allen announced his transfer from Texas A&M the same month as Murray.)
O.K., so Murray bypassed the draft coming out of high school. He’s eligible for it again?
That’s right. High school graduates are only one of several groups of players that make up the pool from which MLB teams select. Teams can also choose junior college players, community college players and players from four-year colleges who have turned 21 or wrapped up their junior or senior years. Murray does not turn 21 until August, but he’ll be eligible after completing his redshirt sophomore season for Oklahoma’s baseball team, which begins play in the NCAA tournament this weekend.
The MLB draft is long—40 rounds long. When is Murray likely to be picked?
Before getting into Murray in particular, it might be useful to review how the MLB draft actually works. Picks in the first 10 rounds of the draft carry specified slot values, and teams are assigned bonus pools that determine how much they can spend on their picks. When signing players, teams need not adhere to the individual slot values, but they can’t exceed their bonus pools. Financial penalties—or, for more severe violations, draft-pick reductions—are handed down to teams that do. If a team drafts a player in the first 10 rounds but cannot sign him, the slot value of that pick is detracted from the team’s pool. For this reason, players who are not considered “signable” by pro scouts often fall several rounds below where their talent level suggests they should be picked. Slot values for this year’s draft run from north of $8 million at the top of the first round to $917,000 at the bottom of the second and diminish in subsequent rounds.
A rigorous two-sport workload this spring did not prevent Murray from establishing himself as a top-shelf outfield prospect for the 2018 draft. Over 51 games this season heading into Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against Mississippi State in Tallahassee*, Murray has recorded 10 home runs and 47 RBI while posting a .296 (batting average)/.398 (on-base percentage)/.556 (slugging percentage) slash line. In his latest rankings for the 2018 class of prospects, Law lists Murray at No. 38, and MLB.com has him at No. 36. Those projections make it clear that Murray is talented enough to justify an early-round selection. But Murray has not publicly revealed his future plans, and convincing him to commit this summer to pursue baseball full-time could require a massive signing bonus.
*Murray did not start in that game after he suffered a hamstring strain during Oklahoma’s win over Texas in the Big 12 tournament last week.
Murray's not about to just give up on football, right?
Don’t count on it. Murray may not have put out a definitive statement declaring his intentions, but Oklahoma football head coach Lincoln Riley does not seem to be fretting over the possibility of Murray leaving Norman in advance of the upcoming season. In a conversation with Associated Press reporter Ralph Russo in May, Riley said he doesn’t “really have any concerns” with the situation. Riley added, “Kyler and I have had some good, private conversations about it, and I’m comfortable where he and his family are at with it. I think he’s comfortable [with] where we’re at with it. So, we’ll just—we’ll proceed and certainly expect to have him.” Riley echoed that stance in comments at a caravan event on Thursday and appeared confident that Murray would choose football over baseball this summer.
Murray’s limited collegiate track record makes it difficult to assess his standing as an NFL prospect, although general managers may question whether his 5'10", 190-pound frame can hold up long-term under center. And while pro teams have shown an increased willingness to incorporate the spread principles that pervade college offenses, talent evaluators may have reservations about the steep learning curve Murray could face after running an Air Raid system. By contrast, Murray’s athleticism and improved numbers at the plate this season have established him as a top-40 prospect in this year’s MLB draft. That status could net Murray a hefty sum of guaranteed money this summer.
As enticing as that option may look from an outsider’s perspective, Riley’s remarks indicate that the Oklahoma coach plans to have Murray around in the fall. Murray could reach a deal with the MLB team that drafts him that enables him to play football this season. Keep in mind that Murray also would be eligible for the MLB draft a year from now. Plus, while taking into account the strong financial incentive of a jump to pro baseball for Murray, it ultimately would entail abandoning the opportunity to blossom into a national superstar while leading a Big 12 and national championship contender. One obvious downside of Murray putting off his pro baseball career is that he could lose some of his luster as a baseball prospect. Not only would Murray be risking the possibility of a football injury or a performance decline in baseball, but scouts could also reason that he has less upside because he’s a year older.
At this point, it feels far more likely than not that Murray will be under center for the Sooners when they host the Owls in Week 1.
Murray wouldn’t be the first college football player picked in the MLB draft. Who else should I know about?
Murray’s situation definitely isn’t unprecedented. Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady (Montreal Expos) and former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (Texas Rangers) are among the more high-profile college football alumni whom MLB teams picked out of high school. Russell Wilson famously played one season at Wisconsin as a graduate transfer from NC State after being selected in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies. Following a scintillating 2011 season with the Badgers in which he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors while recording one of the most efficient passing seasons ever, Wilson chose the NFL over MLB and has thrived with the Seattle Seahawks.
If Murray decides to play football for Oklahoma, what should we realistically expect from him?
Whoever rises to the top of Oklahoma’s quarterback depth chart during preseason camp (more on that below) faces a tall order: Filling the shoes of one of the greatest QBs in recent college football history. As a redshirt senior last season, Mayfield broke the single-season passing efficiency record he set the previous season and completed a nation-high 70.5% of his passes while piloting a Sooners attack that ranked first in yards per attempt and Football Outsiders’s S&P + metric. Mayfield’s pinpoint distribution fueled Oklahoma’s run to its highest win total since 2010 (12), a Big 12 title and the program’s second College Football Playoff appearance.
All of those team goals are in play for the Sooners this season, but they’ll fall short without a signal-caller who can keep Riley’s offense operating at full tilt. That’s where Murray comes in. Murray may never be as polished a passer as Mayfield was, but he’s a bigger threat to make plays with his legs. Opposing defenses tempted to drop back to cover dangerous wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, along with a promising pass catcher at tight end in Grant Calcaterra, will need to account for the possibility that Murray will evade pressure, scramble out of the pocket, make a couple of defenders miss and jet into the end zone. That long sprint through West Virginia’s defense last season offered a glimpse of Murray’s explosiveness, and he’s reportedly clocked a hand-timed 4.38-second 40-yard dash.
Murray appeared in only seven games with one start last season while sitting behind Mayfield, but he acquitted himself well in the small number of snaps he did get. Murray completed 18 of his 21 passing attempts, tossed three touchdowns against zero interceptions and averaged 10.1 yards per carry on 14 carries. It would be unfair to expect Murray to scale those numbers over a full season as the starter; he was less efficient and gained fewer yards on a per-carry basis over eight games with Texas A&M in 2015. Murray may have made major strides since he was a true freshman, but the best course is to set expectations below what they were for Mayfield at the outset of last season.
In any case, it’ll be interesting to see how Riley tailors his system to accentuate Murray’s mobility. As a first-year head coach in 2017, Riley was able to take comfort in handing the reins to a seasoned winner with extensive experience running his offense. Now Riley will have to turn to an unproven signal-caller with a different skill set.
Are there any QBs who can beat out Murray for Oklahoma’s starting job?
Murray will be the favorite when fall camp opens, but he’ll have to fend off redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall. A former four-star recruit out of Waxhaw, N.C., Kendall redshirted last season after playing in two games while backing up Mayfield as a true freshman in 2016. (Murray sat out the latter season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.)
With Kendall sitting out last season, Murray capitalized on his limited playing time by solidifying his position as the likely successor to Mayfield. Yet as Murray balanced centerfield starts in baseball games with reps under center in football practices this spring, Kendall may have chipped away at his lead in Oklahoma’s QB battle. During a windy spring game in mid-April, Kendall completed 11 of his 18 passing attempts for 134 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, compared to 11-of-21 for 85 yards for Murray. Afterward, Riley described the QB race as “neck-and-neck right now.”
However large Murray’s lead is in the Sooners’ quarterback derby, it’s too soon to declare a winner. For now, expect Murray to be the signal-caller trotting on the field with Oklahoma’s first-team offense against Florida Atlantic three months from now, but Kendall’s chances of beating him out shouldn’t be totally dismissed.