Eric Murray saw Alex Smith roll to his right Friday, eyes downfield. From his safety position, Murray knew exactly what to do.
He sprinted to his left, where Chris Conley was streaking toward the corner with the ball headed his way, just like safety Eric Berry said it would be.
“We got the same thing the other day, and I was actually late on it,” Murray said. “So as soon as I saw him do that, I ran straight to the corner.”
Murray and cornerback Marcus Peters converged on Conley to deflect the pass, and inside, Murray was thrilled. It was the type of play the second-year pro, a college cornerback who shifted to safety in the pros, wouldn’t have made a year ago, largely because he was still honing his instincts and eyes at a new position.
“Mentally, picking up and taking all the information that they were giving me the first year kind of had me in a whirlwind, trying to figure it out as I go,” Murray said. “But now, I’m a little bit more familiar with what we’ve got going on and how everything marries up. I think that’s the biggest improvement.
“My movement, it doesn’t look wasted. It just looks more calculated, like I know what I’m doing.”
So much so that Murray, a special-teams stalwart as a rookie, earned a handful of first-string reps in training camp practice Friday as the Chiefs were without two of their top cornerbacks, Terrance Mitchell and Steven Nelson, because of injuries.
“Listen, I like what I’ve seen there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when asked about Murray. “He’s competing, he’s seeing things, he’s diagnosing routes, he’s anticipating well. He’s doing some good things there.”
Murray credits the Chiefs’ coaching staff, not to mention Berry and Ron Parker — the Chiefs’ top-notch safety tandem — for helping him learn a new position. The two have given him a football education at safety, teaching him how to trust his eyes and anticipate certain concepts based on down and distance and the opponent’s tactical tendencies.
“If you can cut it down like that and recognize the concepts the offense is running, you get more familiar with what they’re doing and how they want to attack you,” Murray said. “Then they helped me figure out you’re playing a game with the quarterback, so it’s a matchup with you in man coverage, but when you’re back there in zone, trying to disguise something, every movement you do, everything you do, that quarterback is looking at you, trying to diagnose it just like you are.”
Murray also learned the value of communication from Berry and Parker, who talk often about strategy both on the field and off.
“A lot of people think they’re just out here by themselves, making these plays on their own,” Murray said. “But all these DBs out here see the same thing and they all work together.”
Murray is a tad shorter than most safeties, at 5 feet 10. But the Chiefs bet a year ago that his toughness would help him make the transition at a more physical position. In college, Murray was widely respected as one of the Golden Gophers’ toughest players.
On Thursday, Murray streaked in from his safety position to deliver a blow to starting running back Spencer Ware, a hard-charging 229-pounder. The collision — near the sideline as Ware turned the corner on a running play — caused the crowd to cheer, and Murray looked no worse for wear, despite weighing 30 pounds less than Ware.
“I heard the crowd make a little noise,” Murray said with a laugh. “That’s what you lift weights for … you beat your body up so you can come out here and do that.”
This offseason, by the way, Murray says he pushed his weight up 203 pounds, up from 198 a year ago.
“Yeah, I feel more powerful when I touch people who are the same size as me,” Murray said. “On special teams, we go against a lot of bigger people. So when I get a chance to go against people my size, you’ve got to show what you’ve got.”
The path to playing time on defense might not be a quick one, however. Berry and Parker make an outstanding duo, while Daniel Sorensen established himself as an effective box safety a year ago and signed a four-year extension this offseason.
But Murray — who logged only 64 of 1,013 possible defensive snaps in 2016 — knows the only way to get better is to keep pushing.
“It’s a slow race,” Murray said, “not a sprint.”
In the meantime, you can expect him to have more teachable moments like his pass deflection on Friday. And you can also expect him to keep picking the brains of his older teammates, like Berry, who he couldn’t wait to thank afterward.
“I did exactly what you told me to do,” Murray told Berry after the play. “I saw it and it worked out.”
“I told you,” Berry replied.