ARLINGTON, Texas — Getting recruits to Morgantown is one of the challenges facing any West Virginia football coach and one that Neal Brown has embraced early in his tenure. It’s rare for top-flight recruits to simply fall into the Mountaineers’ laps because they just happen to be in the neighborhood.
But one of the Big 12’s best players spent nearly every summer in WVU’s backyard. Preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year Kenneth Murray is known to everyone as an Oklahoma Sooner. Last season the outside linebacker averaged 11 tackles per game, besting even WVU dynamo David Long, who was named last year’s conference defensive player of the year. If Murray’s childhood dreams had come true, he and Long would have been doing all that damage in tandem.
Kenneth’s uncle, Lind Murray, played for the Mountaineers in their first two seasons at Milan Puskar Stadium in 1980 and 1981. So even though Kenneth was raised in the Houston suburb of Missouri City, Texas, he grew up wanting to be a Mountaineer.
“That’s pretty much all I knew,” Murray said of West Virginia football.
Lind Murray still lives in the Morgantown area, and Kenneth was a regular visitor growing up.
“I go out there sometimes once or twice a year just to hang out with my uncle,” Kenneth said. “That’s my family.”
The younger Murray said he attended a couple WVU summer camps, but his recruitment never really took off. He ended up being more heavily courted by schools in the Big 12’s traditional footprint – Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU and Oklahoma.
“Some things happened [with WVU] and it obviously didn’t go the way my uncle would have wanted it to go,” Kenneth explained. “That’s probably God’s plan. I ended up being [at Oklahoma] and I feel like I’m supposed to be here.”
Last year the schedule worked out for the Murrays to have the rare bonus of being able to spend Thanksgiving together in West Virginia even though Kenneth was on the visiting team. There was apparently enough trash talk to go along with the turkey that Kenneth knew he would never hear the end of it if the Sooners lost the following night.
“That was pretty special [spending Thanksgiving with family],” Kenneth said. “Given that it was in Morgantown, it was pretty bittersweet. That put the pressure on me to make sure we went out and won that game.”
Oklahoma did hang on to win the wild 59-56 contest, which often looked like a clinic in how not to play defense. But Oklahoma’s defense ultimately ended up being the difference, scoring on a pair of fumble return touchdowns.
“It was good to see us make plays and turnovers,” Murray said. “Going into this year, we have to do that more often and more consistently. That’s really what we’re pushing for this year.”
Though he once wished to hear the crowd cheering him on in the very stadium that his uncle helped open, Murray said the silence following Curtis Bolton’s 48-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter was one of the most memorable moments in his career.
“That place went dead silent,” Murray said. “It was interesting and definitely fun. I promised my uncle I was going to come up there and win. And we made it happen.”
Fittingly, that was the final home game for West Virginia’s old coaching regime. One of the primary tasks for the new staff will be making sure players like Murray don’t fall out of their back pocket.