When Giants fans think of former NFL running back DeMarco Murray, it's hard to imagine many fond memories coming to mind.
Murray played his first four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before jumping ship to another NFC East rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, for a year. The former Oklahoma Sooner made two Pro Bowls across those five seasons, including his stellar 2014 campaign that led to him being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with seven wins (with only one loss) and 758 rushing yards against the Giants, both of which were the most he had against any team.
Upon hanging up his cleats in 2018, Murray got into coaching, where he eventually landed as the running backs coach at his alma mater. Nearly one year later, the Giants' 2023 fifth-round pick - Eric Gray - entered the transfer portal from Tennessee. Gray chose Oklahoma, primarily because of Murray's role with the Sooners.
"DeMarco was a big important piece for me and kind of the reason I went to Oklahoma," Gray explained during Giants rookie camp. "I feel like him playing the game at a high level, he could teach me a lot about being a pro in this league, what it takes to be a pro, what I need to do to get better to get to this level…
"The most important thing I took from him is just being a pro every single day, no matter what's going on. Everybody has something going on, and you have to be on your P's and Q's every single day."
Murray achieved a lot in his seven NFL seasons. His resume includes three trips to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. Murray led the NFL with 392 rushes for 1,845 yards in 2014, while his 13 rushing touchdowns was tied for the most in the league.
The Oklahoma RB coach recently joined the Giants Huddle podcast, where he talked about what he discussed with Gray that helped the young man's decision to join the Sooners back in 2021.
"Just that, having a chance to come here and learn from a guy who's been where he's trying to get," Murray said. "Eric, since the first day I spoke with him, he's always had a pro mentality. He's always been very mature, always been an extremely hard work working kid with a great mindset. So for me, just trying to fine tune some things here and there for him. But more importantly, just letting him know that, hey, man, you're gonna be coached hard, you're gonna be coached the right way... Eric's been a great, great person to work with, a tremendous athlete for us, great leader for me. But also, a guy that I knew every day coming to this building, he was one guy I never had to worry about."
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Prior to joining the Sooners' coaching staff, Murray served as the running backs coach for one year at the University of Arizona, where Gary Brightwell was a part of the backfield. It just so happens that the 2019 campaign happened to be Brightwell's most efficient with the Wildcats, as he averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 66 rush attempts, finishing with 390 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Similarly, Gray put together by far the best season of his collegiate career this past year while playing under Murray. After setting career-highs of 772 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns in his first three seasons, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back easily topped all of those marks. Gray ran for a whopping 1,366 yards and 11 touchdowns on 213 carries, good for an average of 6.4 yards per attempt.
"I think just been ok with those dirty runs, you know, those 2, 3, 4-yard runs that, sometimes you need those to set up the big ones," Murray said on Gray's success last season. "And for him, he was able to bulk up a little bit more. But understanding that, hey, all four get your head down and again, be physical and then add on another yard or two rather than jump, cutting and losing a yard or maybe not getting those extra yards. But, Eric has always been a guy that he can see the field. As a coach, you always appreciate a guy that you can talk to in the classroom where you can tell him more detail and then he goes out there and does it that same second, that same way. And he's always been a guy like that since he stepped on campus for me."
As a senior this past season, Gray caught 33 passes, the most in his collegiate career, for 229 yards. It was the second consecutive season in which he finished with 229 receiving yards; he recorded 23 receptions for 229 yards and two touchdowns as a junior.
"He was always a really good receiver," the former NFL back said of the Giants rookie. "I think just for us, we asked him to do much more this past year than we did a year ago. Every time I'm game planning and implementing routes for the running backs, I'm always thinking of number zero. He's the first guy that comes to mind because it's such a great matchup and we know that hey, 100% of the time we're gonna have the upper hand just because of his ability, whether it's an intermediate route or a long route. We trust him just as much as we trust a receiver running a post or a dig coming out of the backfield. That's just the type of hands that he has, that's the type of setup that he has, that's the type of versatility that we saw him have day in and day out."
As Gray is now set to embark in the next phase of his football journey, he noted how Murray "was the key to teaching me a lot about being successful in this league."
"He knows about playing in the flow, playing in the heat of the battle, being out there and knowing fronts, knowing coverages," the 23-year-old said about his former position coach. "He taught me a lot about reading the defense before the play happens, reading it pre-snap to give you a feel on where the ball is going to hit or even protection maybe."
Despite being selected as second-team All-Big 12 pick this past season, Gray did not hear his name called until the fifth round (No. 172 overall) of last month's draft. However, that slot has not diminished the rookie's excitement about achieving his dream of making it to the NFL.
In fact, Gray does not have to look far to see that pro success does not require a high draft position. Murray was the Cowboys' third-round pick in 2011.
"I'm just looking at my opportunity here," Gray said about where he was drafted. "My opportunity, I'm here now. First day, second day, third day, that's all out of the window. I'm here now. I got a chance to be in a special place like this, so I'm happy about it."
Listening to the rookie running back talk, one thing is clear – Gray is confident that his physical abilities will translate to the professional level.
"I think football is football in my opinion," said Gray. "I think you go out there, you work hard, you do what it takes on and off the field, and you let your body take over when you get out there."
View the top photos of running back Eric Gray's career at Oklahoma.