First-year running backs coach DeMarco Murray whacks running back John Burton with a pad while conducting a drill during practice last week. Murray, a former NFL star, was hired last spring to replace Clarence McKinney.

DeMarco Murray guards information the way he wants his players to carry the football: He keeps it tucked in close — high and tight.

A little over a week out from Arizona’s opener at Hawaii, the first-year UA running backs coach wasn’t particularly interested in discussing J.J. Taylor’s workload, sizing up the backup battle or revealing the rotation. But that’s OK. He’s here to help them, after all — not necessarily the rest of us.

Murray’s reputation and accomplishments speak for themselves. Despite never having coached, the former All-Pro brought instant credibility to Arizona’s running back room.

“When he speaks, they listen,” UA outside receivers coach Taylor Mazzone said. “It’s easy to have a great saying as a coach, but when you actually have done it recently and shown it on film and shown it on TV and your name’s on the bottom line of ESPN, it kind of sticks in these kids’ ears a little bit more.

“Just the way he carries himself as a professional. It’s kind of like, ‘You see, that’s an NFL player.’ ”

Murray was an NFL player so recently that his pro career overlapped with the college careers of three of Arizona’s five scholarship tailbacks. Murray played 15 games for the Tennessee Titans in 2017. He retired the following summer, at 30, to become a game analyst for Fox Sports.

After longtime aide Clarence McKinney left to become the head coach at Texas Southern, Kevin Sumlin placed a call to Murray, whom Sumlin had recruited and coached at Oklahoma.

“I always knew that I wanted to get into coaching in some aspect,” Murray said. “I didn’t know when it would take place. But having the opportunity to work with Coach Sumlin … it was a blessing to get a phone call from him.”

Murray had no prior coaching experience, but Sumlin knew what kind of asset his former recruit could be to the program. Murray appears to have made a seamless transition from the field to the booth to the sideline.

Noel Mazzone, who has been coaching for almost 40 years, said he doesn’t feel the need to micromanage the UA staff’s rookie coach. He’s DeMarco Murray, after all.

“I don’t have to worry about the backs,” said Mazzone, Arizona’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “I never go over there and say, ‘No, they should be doing it this way.’”

The conversation, if you want to call it that, goes more like this: “How you gonna do it? OK. Good. Thanks, DeMarco.”

“That’s about all I say to him,” Mazzone said.

Murray’s peers describe him as smart and organized. Taylor, the Wildcats’ starting tailback, called Murray “a man about his business” – which also would be an apt depiction of Taylor.

Murray comes off as humble — especially for someone who has achieved as much as he has. Murray twice was named first-team All-Big 12. A third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011, Murray was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in ’14 when he led the league with 1,845 rushing yards.

Murray easily is the most famous of Arizona’s position coaches, who are speaking to local reporters after practice throughout the week. Murray’s turn came Wednesday night, and he drew by far the biggest media contingent. He had little inclination to talk about himself, though.

“It’s all about the kids,” Murray said, “being able to work with them on a daily basis, not just on the field but off the field.”

Murray was a true student-athlete at Oklahoma. He earned Big 12 All-Academic honors four times, graduating with a degree in communications and a double minor in business and African-American studies.

Murray wasn’t sure what to expect when he returned to campus life. He’s been pleasantly surprised.

“I was kind of … worried about what kind of kids they would be,” Murray said. “Credit to Coach Sumlin on how well-behaved they are, how respectful they are to each other, to the trainers, to the whole organization – just the kind of men they are. That was something that I wasn’t expecting.”

DeMarco Murray was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2014 after leading the league with 1,845 rushing yards.

Murray just so happens to coach the deepest position on the team, inheriting a group that helped Arizona lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the past three seasons. But there are always ways to get better.

Murray immediately worked with the backs on their carrying technique to reduce fumbles, which were a problem for Taylor and others last season. Murray also has tried to help them improve their vision, which is easier said than done at a position that relies heavily on instinct.

In late spring, junior tailback Gary Brightwell beamed about Murray. Brightwell said that if he knew then what he knew now, he could have rushed for 1,000 yards — “maybe 2,000” — last season. Brightwell carried the ball only 91 times, so that’s obviously hyperbole. But Brightwell truly believes Murray has helped make him a better back.

“He taught us how to envision the game better,” Brightwell said during training camp, echoing his takeaways from Murray’s tutelage in spring: “He taught me how to read a defense. He taught me how to read a front.”

This is where Murray’s recent real-life experience takes full effect. He knows how to read a play and find a hole. He understands the difference between coaching and playing.

“It’s a lot easier to coach when you can pause a play,” Murray said. “But when you’re out there, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a split second before you have to make decisions. I’ve been in their shoes.”

Knowing he can’t press pause, Murray urges his backs to trust their eyes and read their keys. If it worked for him, it will work for them.

“He’s been there. He’s done that,” Taylor said. “Now he’s giving back.”

On Wiley, Tilford

Murray provided some insights on two of Arizona’s must buzzed-about backs: freshman Michael Wiley and redshirt sophomore Nathan Tilford.

Despite the depth at the position, Wiley seems to be part of the Wildcats’ plans. Murray indicated that Wiley still has work to do.

“He’s obviously a young guy,” Murray said. “He still has to sharpen and crisp up some things. I think his sense of urgency needs to rise up a little bit more. But that’s every 18- to 19-year-old coming from high school into college.”

Wiley rushed for 2,632 yards and 29 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston. He has displayed a knack for big plays in UA practices.

Arizona running back Michael Wiley (6) runs through a drill during practice at the University of Arizona Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

Tilford came to Arizona with sterling credentials; he was a consensus four-star recruit in the class of 2017.

Tilford has struggled to earn playing time, but that could be changing.

“Nate is a really good talent,” Murray said. “His size (6-2, 207) is unbelievable. But I think his confidence is finally starting to show. He’s getting the reps, and he’s understanding the offense.

“Last year (it was a) new offense, and things happen fast. The staff kind of got hired late. He’s done a great job at working hard every day and not making the same mistakes.”


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.