Armwood's pass rush stifles Murray
TAMPA, Fla. -- Aaron Murray stood near midfield of Dad's Stadium soaking in the late afternoon sun. It was 2½ hours before the start of his senior season and he was chilling.
Murray was dressed more like he was headed to the beach, wearing baggy basketball shorts, flip-flops and a cutoff T-shirt. Clipped to his waistband, his iPod was cranking Eminem -- music to psyche him up for the opening game against rival Armwood (Seffner) Friday.
Murray, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior from Plant High, does not need psyching; he's way past motivational tricks.
As one of the nation's premier quarterback prospects from the Class of 2009, he brings all the tools to the huddle: throwing, running and leadership qualities.
Tom Luginbill, a former quarterback at Georgia Tech and the National Recruiting Coordinator for Scouts, Inc., outlines Murray's superlatives.
"Aaron has a quick release; he gets the ball off his hand with velocity," Luginbill said. "He's also a playmaker; things happen quickly when he has the ball. He'll beat you routinely with his arm or legs.
"He also possesses 'it'. It's something you can't put your finger on -- intangible factors -- but he has it. He creates plays physically and from the neck up. These three strengths separate him from others."
He entered the season with impressive credentials:
• Ranked No. 3 overall in the ESPN 150, including the No. 2 quarterback
• Named MVP of the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp earlier this summer in California
• Passed for 4,013 yards and 51 TDS; ran for 932 yards, averaging 10.0 yards per carry, and 12 TDs as a junior
• Scheduled to play in the 2009 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an all-star game in Texas in January
Murray is known to improvise in the pocket. If the receivers are blanketed, he takes to the ground. When the holes close, he's rifling a spiral downfield, mostly for huge chunks of yards.
But that wasn't the case against nationally ranked Armwood. Friday night Murray saw the pocket collapse far too many times. He threw off his back foot often. His hamstring was barking after a few hits in the opening half.
As the defenders whizzed by like bullets, Murray kept dodging.
For the third time in two seasons, Armwood had the defensive answer, topping Murray and the Panthers, 9-2, before a sellout of 6,000 at cozy Dad's Stadium in the Tony Palma Ceia neighborhood.
To understand Murray is to beat him. That's what Armwood defensive coordinator Matt Thompson tried to do for most of the summer.
Thompson regularly churned out 14-hour days watching film of the Georgia-bound Murray, who will graduate from high school in December.
Normally Murray clicks on 61 percent of his passes, but Friday's game exposed a few holes in his game. He only completed 13 of 36 passes (36 percent) for 119 yards and an interception late in the fourth quarter that sealed Armwood's victory.
Coaches such as Thompson accepted the challenge of devising a game plan to halt Murray.
It takes a kaleidoscope of defensive looks, switching from three-man fronts to four, to baffle Murray. Thompson implemented 36 stunts, twists and blitzes, and 15 different zone coverages.
To tame Murray, Thompson picked the brain of former NFL linebacker Keith Newman, who coaches at a high school near Tampa.
"This defense was created for players like Murray and teams like Nease [Ponte Vedra] and Booker T. Washington [Miami]," Thompson said. "Many sleepless nights went into preparation."
Murray said, "They are tough and physical and really fast on defense."
In the opening half against Armwood, he was sacked four times by All-American defensive end Ryne Giddins.
"You have to beat Aaron with a team effort," said Giddins, grinning.
"We have an attitude on defense."
Plant has the same swagger on offense with coaching savant Bob Weiner at the controls.
The Panthers rely on the right arm and moxie of Murray. Last season the offensively-oriented Panthers averaged 40 points and nearly 450 yards of offense per game. Using multiple defensive looks, Armwood reduced the Panthers to mere mortals.
In two games, Plant scored seven points and averaged 295 yards, far below season standards.
Friday night was no different, except for Plant's personnel. A young offensive line was punctured by Giddins, Theodore "Man Man" Jackson, Alton Bailey and David Tinsley.
Graduation claimed Murray's favorite targets, Derek Winter and Cornelius Gallon. The new cast of receivers includes Eric Dungy (the son of Indianapolis Colts' Coach Tony Dungy), Allen Sampson, Justin Rudolph and Nathan Marvel.
Tight end Orson Charles, a transfer from Riverview High in Tampa, is 6-3, 230 pounds with a high ceiling. He was flexed out Friday and already integrated into the team's offense.
The Hawks, the state's No. 1-ranked Class 4A team, have discovered ways to hound Murray, flattening him in the pocket. When Armwood attacked, Murray went left or right, scrambling for his life.
"They [Armwood] fly to the ball," Murray said. "They are a disciplined defense and follow their assignments."
The game, televised nationally on ESPNU, was a coming-out party for Armwood's junior defensive end Jackson.
A 6-foot-3, 225-pound raw specimen, Jackson was unleashed in a retooled defense. Coach Sean Callahan felt a defensive change was necessary and scrapped his traditional 4-3 alignment for a 3-4.
Featured in the new-look defense was Giddins, the 47th ranked prospect in the ESPNU 150. A year ago, he recorded an eye-popping 21 sacks, including four against Murray in two games.
When legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson devised the 3-4 formation seven decades ago, it began with three linemen and four linebackers. Simple stuff, but add several wrinkles and it can fluster any quarterback.
Murray and his teammates attempted to adjust this summer.
Plant, which won the 4A state championship in 2006, had a successful summer competing in several national 7-on-7 passing tournaments. But success isn't measured on a modified field; in fact, "it's misleading," says Armwood coach Sean Callahan.
"We play real football," he said. "It's an attitude we've adopted. The 7-on-7 tournaments are good for a quarterback's timing with receivers. The receivers get down their routes and have to make the catches.
"I think it's good for defensive backs to check coverage but it's a lot different than a real game. That's the way we think here [at Armwood]."
That attitude has carried Armwood (1-0) far in recent years.
Last season the Hawks lost in the state semifinals to eventual champion Booker T. Washington, 34-14. The program captured back-to-back state crowns in 2003 and '04 and lost 37-34 in the 2005 4A final to Nease and future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Armwood beat Plant this time, but Weiner expects a rematch in the regional playoffs for the third straight year.
And Weiner thinks Murray will be ready.
"Aaron is one tough player," he said. "What I'm really impressed with is that he's all heart."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball.
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