November 9, 2018 10:11:28 AM
STARKVILLE -- Marcus Murphy sacrificed to give himself a chance to play as a freshmen at Mississippi State, even if he knew that role would be limited.
Murphy graduated early from West Point High School and became an early-enrollee freshman at MSU, in time to join the team for spring practice. It gave a prospect touted as a positionless athlete a chance to be around experienced defensive backs and learn the finer techniques from them.
It also gave him the inside track to the role that acclimated him to college football: special teams.
The freshman has made his impact on special teams units this year, particularly on the kickoff return unit, but recently he's been asked to do more. That spring practice session and the regular-season special teams reps have him at a point where No. 18 MSU can turn to him in the secondary. With former starting nickel Brian Cole out for the season, MSU will likely turn to him for rotational snaps against No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference).
"He's one of those guys, the arena's never too big for him," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "I think he probably plays better when the coach isn't standing behind him, 'Make sure you're this, make sure you're that.' Tremendously bright future in the long term."
The foundation for that potential was laid in the spring.
Murphy entered MSU (6-3, 2-3 SEC, No. 16 College Football Playoff) as one of the more promising athletes in the state, having just run for 1,856 yards and 31 touchdowns while throwing for 1,058 and nine scores. The only question was where to put him.
It is commonplace in college football for malleable athletes of Murphy's caliber to be tested at defensive back, trusting that level of athleticism combined with learned technique will create a good one.
Murphy found himself in good surroundings.
"I had older guys teaching me the fundamentals and technique because I never really played defense in high school," Murphy said. "I've adapted to it, become a better athlete and a better teammate.
"When I came in, I knew I had a chance to play, so I came in with a clear mind-set of coming to compete against my standard and the standard they hold up here. I had a mind-set to dominate, I just didn't have the technique right off the bat."
As summer turned to preseason, Murphy quickly game himself a new project.
"I understand the first year's basically going to be special teams and getting adapted to the game," Murphy said.
That being the case, he put everything he could into special teams, and it came with perfect timing. This is the first time MSU has had a dedicated special teams coordinator with no other title, thus in a better position to notice a player giving undivided effort to special teams. That man, Joey Jones, saw everything Murphy was doing.
"He just has a passion for going down on kickoff," Jones said. "No. 1, I think that's who he is, but secondly, I think he was dying to get on the field in any way and he knew his way to get on the field this year was through special teams. Once he got the taste of that blood of getting down there and making a tackle, he wanted to get it back.
"To have a freshman play that maturely in practice and really understand what we're doing, not ask the questions: he listens in meetings and takes it to the field."
Murphy's time as a special teams specialist was productive: the first two tackles of his career came there and he was generally disruptive even when he wasn't credited with the tackle.
He said he used those reps to help him adjust to the speed of the college game. It helped him develop his awareness and know he is capable of bringing down collegiate ballcarriers.
Shoop predicted a time would come when Murphy would be called upon for defensive snaps, and that time is now. Because he got to campus early and because he started his career on special teams, he's ready to handle the workload.
"I'm still an athlete, but I don't look at the game from a QB's standpoint. I have to defend this guy, I have to go tackle this guy, that's my mind-set now," Murphy said. "It changed my whole awareness of the game.
"I feel like a complete DB."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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