Replacing Baker Mayfield is no easy task. The Heisman Trophy winner, the no. 1 overall NFL draft pick, the swaggering heartbeat of a playoff team, is off to the pros, and the diminutive quarterback nevertheless leaves some big shoes to fill at Oklahoma. The plan, at least for now, is for redshirt junior Kyler Murray to fill those shoes. Murray, a transfer from Texas A&M, was a high school football legend in Allen, Texas; he went 43-0 as a starter and won numerous national player of the year awards in his senior season. ESPN had him ranked as the top dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, while 247Sports slotted him second behind fellow Texan Jarrett Stidham, who, after a stint at Baylor, is now entering his second season as the starter at Auburn.
As a true freshman at A&M, Murray split time with Kyle Allen. He struggled as a passer that year (72-for-121 for 686 yards, five TDs, seven INTs), but excelled in spots as a runner: A 20-carry, 156-yard performance against South Carolina was the highlight of his season. Last year, in the seven games he played as Mayfield’s backup, he looked much better in head coach Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense; in limited playing time, Murray averaged more than 10 yards a carry and 17 yards per passing attempt. Three of his 21 passes went for touchdowns, and he didn’t turn over the ball.
Murray is an exciting talent, to say the least. Here’s what one writer had to say about his professional prospects: “Evaluators see him as a crude but gifted speedster with good pop for his size who possesses more projection than most because of his athleticism. Murray is performing this year (.290/.390/.520 at publication) on the baseball field despite little prior in-game experience.”
Hang on … baseball? The quote above is from FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen, and when Murray goes pro next spring, he’ll be playing for an Oakland Athletics farm team, not some NFL club. Even though Murray will still have a year of eligibility left after this season, he’s already signed a contract with the A’s and will leave the Sooners at season’s end no matter what.
It’s not uncommon for athletes to have to choose between college football and high-level baseball. There’s an alternate timeline in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Twins catcher–first baseman Joe Mauer lived out each other’s careers. Mauer had committed to play quarterback at Florida State before the Twins picked him first overall in the 2001 MLB draft, while in 1995 the Montreal Expos offered Brady, then a talented high school catcher, an outsize draft bonus in an attempt to lure him away from his commitment to the University of Michigan.
Some athletes play both baseball and football growing up, attempt to go pro in one, and fall back on the other when the first doesn’t work out. That’s how Chris Weinke and Brandon Weeden became dad-aged NFL rookies—29 and 28 years old when they made their respective debuts—and just this year both the Ravens and the Texans spent early-round draft picks on tight ends who came back to football after washing out as minor leaguers.
It’s also somewhat common for players to double up sports in college. At one point, the Colorado Rockies employed both Peyton Manning’s college backup (Todd Helton) and Eli Manning’s college backup (Seth Smith). Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija was an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame. Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, probably a top-10 pick in next year’s MLB draft, kicked for the Beavers’ football team as a freshman.
Sometimes, players are so committed to playing two sports they go pro in one while continuing to play another in college. While Ricky Williams was a star running back for the Texas Longhorns, he spent his summers playing outfield in the Phillies’ minor league system. And Celtics executive Danny Ainge made it all the way to the big leagues in the Toronto Blue Jays system, where he played parts of three seasons before joining the Boston Celtics in 1981.
And finally, there are some athletes that can make simultaneous professional dual-sport careers work—Bo Jackson being the most famous example, along with Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders. From 1989 to 1991, both Jordan and Sanders played for the Atlanta Falcons and moonlighted as professional baseball players. And 1960 National League MVP Dick Groat played 26 games in the NBA after finishing a Hall of Fame career at Duke.
Suffice it to say, we’ve seen just about every permutation of dual-sport athlete. But what Murray is doing this year is not only unusual, it’s frankly pretty weird. Murray isn’t keeping his options open: He’s picked one sport and having one last go-around in another.
This saga is made even stranger by Murray’s fluctuating level of commitment to baseball. Dating back to his junior year of high school, Murray expressed a strong interest in playing college football and missed most of the big showcase events for high school baseball draft prospects. At that time he played middle infield and was nearly as good a baseball prospect as a football prospect. Six weeks before the 2015 MLB draft, ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Murray as the 32nd-best prospect in the class, ahead of three players—Carson Fulmer, Andrew Benintendi, and Cornelius Randolph—who would eventually sneak into the top 10.
Murray was an incredibly attractive prospect, the kind of high school player teams sometimes reach to pick early. And with a college football career to fall back on, he would’ve had huge negotiating leverage. No matter how committed he said he was to playing football at Texas A&M, someone probably would’ve picked Murray and made him say no to a seven-figure bonus offer.
Only Murray never gave them the chance. Unlike their NBA or NFL counterparts, MLB prospects don’t declare for the draft; as long as a player meets certain age requirements, he has to go out of his way to take himself out of contention. Murray did that when he skipped a mandatory pre-draft drug test for the explicit purpose of removing himself from the draft pool. His commitment to football looked absolute.
But as Murray has gone three seasons—a year splitting time with Allen at A&M, a redshirt year as he transferred, and a year backing up Mayfield—without regular playing time in football, that commitment has changed. Murray returned to the baseball diamond in 2017 after missing his freshman season when he transferred, playing sporadically first for the Sooners, then for the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League, the country’s premier collegiate summer league.
And Murray sucked. He hit .122/.317/.122 in 49 at-bats for Oklahoma, then .170/.273/.277 in 47 at-bats for Harwich. That was to be expected. Pitchers can sometimes come back from years-long layoffs, but developing hitters need reps above all else—for instance, Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar was once the no. 1 prospect in baseball and broke into the big leagues at 19, but he missed most of his age-21 and age-22 seasons with injuries and never got back on his previous developmental path.
That made Murray’s resurgence in 2018 especially shocking. He locked down a starting spot in center field on a good Sooners team, hit .296/.398/.556 with 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 51 games, and stayed in the MLB draft pool this time. In the April article I quoted above, Longenhagen predicted that Murray would go no higher than 29th overall to the Cleveland Indians, which was basically in line with industry consensus, and wrote, “Teams fear it would take about $5 million to really convince Murray to just play baseball.”
Well, that all changed on draft night as the Oakland A’s not only reached to grab Murray all the way up at no. 9 overall, but they paid him close to that $5 million—$4.66 million, nearly all of that draft slot’s value—and didn’t even get a baseball-only commitment. The team gave Murray its blessing to play one last season in Norman and come to camp next spring.
It’s an awkward fit for all three parties—Murray, the A’s, and the Sooners—but there are upsides for all of them.
Murray gets to spend one last season as a football player, which is a huge part of his identity. There are some two-sport high school and college athletes who derive more of their popularity from baseball than football, but not undefeated Texas state high school champion quarterbacks, and certainly not the starting quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners. Moreover, for all the economic exploitation college football players face, life is going to be much better for Murray as the star quarterback at OU than it would be taking long bus rides and eating peanut butter and jelly 10 meals a week while working 60- or 70-hour weeks for less than minimum wage, as minor league ballplayers do.
Murray also gets the chance to chase a Heisman Trophy and a national championship, both of which are unlikely, but possible. If he cements himself as an Oklahoma football legend in his one season as the starting quarterback, he’ll have at least some measure of celebrity for the rest of his life, no matter what he does on the baseball field.
Oakland, meanwhile, is risking a ton by sending the 5-foot-11 Murray—who’s undersized even for an outfielder, let alone a Power-5 quarterback—back to the gridiron. Murray is an elusive runner, but despite the adage about nobody playing defense in the Big 12, Murray could quite easily suffer a career-ending or career-altering injury this season. Even so, Oakland clearly loves Murray’s game, otherwise it wouldn’t have taken him 20 spots higher than he was supposed to go, paid him a slot-value bonus, and loaned him back out to his extremely dangerous side gig instead of giving him two or three months’ worth of playing time at a critical stage in his development. Maybe that’s just the price of getting an extremely talented player into the system fully focused on baseball.
As for Riley and the Sooners, there’s no such thing as a rebuilding year. That means that even if his backup, redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall, might benefit from another year’s worth of playing time, developing Kendall for 2019 and 2020 is of secondary importance to winning now. While I’m sure Riley would prefer to at least keep open the possibility of Murray staying for his senior season, one-year starting quarterbacks are common in college football. If the quarterback who gives Oklahoma the best shot this year won’t be there next year, so be it.
It is a workable but imperfect situation on all sides. Oklahoma is committing to a starting quarterback who is both inexperienced and leaving after the season. Murray is trying to have it all but in doing so is increasing his chances of walking away with nothing, as are the Oakland A’s, who have spent a top-10 pick on a player whose baseball career could end before his first professional at-bat. There’s a reason people don’t try this often, or aren’t allowed to. Only very special athletes get the amount of slack Murray’s been afforded by both his present and future teams.