Florida's Murphy makes most of journey
While no one will mistake Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel as a Heisman candidate or can’t-miss NFL prospect, a compelling case could’ve been made coming into the 2013 season that he was one of college football’s most indispensable players.
Sure, skill-wise Driskel might not be on the same level as Johnny Football, Teddy Football or Tajh-y football (OK, that last one definitely doesn’t work). But in terms of importance, Driskel was there with all of them.
Reflecting on last season, how could he not be? After all, Florida won the same number of games as Texas A&M, Louisville and Clemson, and it did with an offense held together by duct tape, rubber cement and Driskel’s sheer will. The Gators managed to win 11 games despite the fact they ranked 104th nationally in total offense (334 yards per game).
Understand that’s a ranking that is usually reserved for teams rebuilding or re-loading for the following year, only at Florida 2012 was the year its offense had been building toward.
It also meant that entering 2013, the Gators had to replace their leading rusher from last season (Mike Gillislee), three of their top four receivers (Jordan Reed, Frankie Hammond Jr. and Omarius Hines) and the only man who threw significant passes behind Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, who transferred to NC State in the spring.
It also led to one sobering realization for Gators fans in 2013: Things weren’t good with Driskel last season. Prevailing thought was that they’d be cataclysmically terrible if they lost him going forward.
At least that was the thought, until Gators actually did lose Driskel, when he broke his leg in the first quarter Saturday against Tennessee. In stepped back-up Tyler Murphy, who not only showed up, but showed out in his first meaningful snaps as Florida’s quarterback.
The kid who had never thrown a pass in a Gators’ uniform (outside of a botched special teams play in Week 2 of this season) tossed for 134 yards and a touchdown Saturday, and accumulated another 84 yards on the ground. In the process, Murphy led Florida to an easy-breezy, 31-17 victory over the Vols.
The new quarterback isn’t some can’t miss five-star high school stud, but instead someone that almost everyone — including Florida — nearly missed out on completely.
Murphy grew up in Wethersfield, Conn., a place that can’t really be described as “small town” but also would never be mistaken for any type of bustling metropolis. It’d also never be confused as a place that produces can’t-miss football talent. Prior to Murphy’s arrival in Gainseville, it’d been decades since they sent a player to a major Division I program.
Still, when Murphy arrived at the local high school as a sophomore, it wasn’t long before Wethersfield head coach John Campanello realized he had a one-of-a-kind player on his hands.
“He was a starter for us right away,” Campanello said. “He started at wide receiver as a sophomore and quarterback as a junior. As a senior, he did everything for us. He played quarterback. He returned kicks. He played defense if we needed him. He was a special kind of player who doesn’t come around very often.”
There was little doubt Murphy was special, but in the eyes of most college coaches, his talents didn’t translate to the quarterback position at the next level.
Syracuse wanted Murphy as a wide receiver. UConn wanted him as a safety (insert your own Mack Brown/Johnny Manziel joke here). Murphy eventually committed to Temple, but even the Owls coaching staff wasn’t totally sold on him as a quarterback.
That is of course, until Florida came calling.
The Gators had some ties to Connecticut; former assistant coach Steve Addazio is a native of the state, and while at Florida he was the man who convinced Reed and former All-American Aaron Hernandez to come down South. And it was through Addazio that the Gators eventually offered Murphy a chance not only to come to Gainesville, but play under center. The decision sent ripples straight through the college football community.
“After Florida offered, a lot of people came calling,” Campanello said.
In recruiting circles, the move was seen as nothing, if not bizarre. At the time Florida was putting together what many considered to be the best class of all-time, with a group that included two players that have already gone on to be first round NFL Draft picks (Shariff Floyd and Matt Elam) and several more (Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, pending recovery from knee issues that will sideline him for the rest of the season) who could be on their way there, too.
Then there was the two-star quarterback from Connecticut nobody had ever heard of.
“It was like that old game on Sesame Street,” Scout.com National Recruiting Analyst Brandon Huffman said. “One of these is not like the others.”
Murphy’s commitment went against the grain in other ways as well. In recruiting, the general rule is that when you get down to the final few spots, if all things are equal, you offer the scholarship to the local kid. It helps build a relationship with the high school coaches in the area, and could open more doors in the future.
“At the time, it just seemed like there were a lot of similar kids in Florida,” Huffman said.
Huffman then furthered that point by explaining that sometimes a coach fills their final scholarships to fill off-the-field voids as much on-the-field concerns.
“Sometimes you take a flyer on a kid knowing that he might never play,” Huffman said. “There are other reasons. They might be good in the locker room. They might help bring the team GPA up. They might be a great host on recruiting visits. Stuff like that.”
Whatever the case, when Murphy did arrive on campus, he was as far down the depth chart as most expected him to be. That didn’t change at all the following year when Driskel — the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country according to Scout — committed to the Gators early, and remained in the fold even after Urban Meyer left the school and Will Muschamp replaced him.
When Muschamp convinced Brissett to come aboard the same year, the writing on the wall appeared to be etched in stone: Murphy would likely never see the field at Florida. At least not at quarterback.
“When they went after Driskel, it meant that anyone from the previous class would probably never play,” Huffman said.
That might be the case with most players at most schools, just not with Murphy at Florida. He continued to show up and work hard, even as the staff continued to recruit over him. Some suggested transferring. Some suggested switching positions. Murphy just kept waiting for his opportunity under center.
“I never specifically asked him about things,” Campanello said. “But I know he always wanted to play quarterback. Whatever decision he made, it was based on ‘Can I play quarterback.’ That was the goal he set for himself.”
And while it didn’t happen overnight — or even over several years — that goal slowly but surely started to come into play.
Reed, who was recruited as a quarterback the year before Murphy arrived, was moved to tight end. Trey Burton, who was recruited as a quarterback in the same class as Murphy, took on a hybrid role in the backfield. And when Brissett transferred this spring, it allowed Murphy to move into the back-up role. He even got first-string reps when Driskel needed an appendectomy this fall.
“That gave him a lot of confidence,” Campanello said of Murphy‘s brief run with the ones.
And it was that confidence which Murphy carried over with him to the field against Tennessee. Murphy’s performance may have caught the college football world off-guard. It didn’t surprise those who knew him best, however.
“He’s gotten himself in that position,” Campanello said. “He put himself in that position by preparing himself every single day so that when the time came he could make the most of it.”
But beyond any skills Murphy showed on the field this past weekend, he also gave outsiders a glimpse into his true character as well. In an era where everyone, in seemingly every walk of life, wants immediate success, Murphy waited four long years to get his first taste of playing time.
It’s a sacrifice not many of his peers would’ve made.
“If you’re not a starter by your third year, you’re a bust and you transfer,” Huffman said. “But there are kids who keep their mouth shut and just keep showing up every day and working hard. Sometimes, they get that opportunity.”
Murphy was one of those kids.
“He proves that if you keep working hard, keep doing the right things, good things will happen,” Campanello said. “He’s just a team guy. He’s willing to do whatever he needs to for the team.”
And with the team now firmly in his hands, Murphy has the eyes of the college football world upon him. He’s also got the eyes of everyone back home on him too.
“It’s kind of fun,” Campanello said. “The whole town is excited for Tyler. Wherever you go that’s the talk of the town.”
And it’s not just for what he’s accomplished in his short time on the field, but all those years off it too.
“That’s what makes this such a good story and makes it so nice,” Campanella said. “He’s a guy that proves that if you stick by your guns, you work hard, anything is possible.”
Even being a quarterback at one of the top college football programs in the country.
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and contributor to FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres. Email him at ATorres00@gmail.com.