I hadn’t even gotten the question fully out of my mouth before Ottawa REDBLACKS’ Defensive Coordinator Noel Thorpe answered it with two quick words.
“Consummate pro,” he said, nodding.
He was talking about Rico Murray, the veteran Ottawa defensive back who has been a big part of a shut-down resurgence in the nation’s capital; a player that Thorpe leans on to help make that defence tick.
A few more descriptors quickly followed, with Thorpe giving his thoughts on the REDBLACKS’ Most Outstanding Defensive Player for 2018.
“Hard-working, lunchbox, unselfish,” the coach continued. “Great leadership qualities in the locker room and on the field.”
At 31 years old, Rico Murray, CFL East All-Star, is a leader among Ottawa defenders, not just on the stats sheet but in the walk that needs to be walked in order for a unit to thrive. As he leads the secondary into this Sunday’s 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, the six-year vet is comfortable in his own skin. He has three men to thank for that in a large way.
He knows it, he’s grateful, and he is effusive in talking about it.
Thorpe is one of those men, the latest of three very good defensive coordinators to guide Murray during his CFL career. The other two are Corey Chamblin and Orlondo Steinauer. Each has left a mark on Murray, and as he sets his sights on a second straight Grey Cup championship, he is taking stock and giving credit. And he’s using lessons learned to help lead his team.
“Not only have they helped me grow as a football player,” said Murray, “they also helped me grow as a man.”
In learning defences under all three of those men, Murray has sucked up the knowledge and developed into a stalwart, performing exactly as the REDBLACKS had hoped he would when they signed him as a free agent last winter. The lessons he gleaned and the maturity that was, in a way, forced on him previously, are all on display now that he is in red and black.
He asked himself a question when he joined the REDBLACKS: “How can I be the best version of myself in his (Thorpe’s) system?”
Wouldn’t have always been that way. In fact, just a season ago, Murray found himself at odds with what Chamblin was trying to do as Toronto’s defensive coordinator. He struggled with the changes that were being asked of him, having done things differently during his first four seasons in Hamilton under the direction of Steinauer.
“I was a stubborn bull,” Murray said. “I was like ‘ahh, this doesn’t seem right, this doesn’t seem right.’ But when I actually bought in, the team success, my personal success, it made me a better player.”
“I learned how to play match coverage and pattern read when I was with Coach Steinauer. Then, I go to Toronto and the only thing I knew, for four years, was Coach Steinauer’s perspective on the CFL game.”
Chamblin’s philosophies and expectations were foreign to Murray and he resisted. But at some point, he decided to end the struggle and go with the flow. More than that, really. He paddled with the current.
“So, I had to pretty much reinvent my whole self,” Murray said. “Technique, playing style. I had to be the best version of myself in Coach Chamblin’s defence because if I was Rico Murray in coach Steinauer’s defence, I wouldn’t have been as productive as a player in Chamblin’s defence.”
“He’s the architect, so I just need to learn from this guy,” said Murray of the realization that swept over him regarding Chamblin. “I gotta pick his brain, understand why he thinks the way that he thinks. I took that mentality from Toronto and I brought it here to Ottawa and I came in with an open mindset.”
Murray soared as an Argo, eventually, being named an East all-star as the team charged to the finish line, upsetting the Stampeders in the Grey Cup. He liked it in Toronto – “an A-1 organization” he called it – but took a free agent deal with Ottawa that was better than what the Argos were offering. That Thorpe told him merely to play a lot of basketball to get ready for the season was icing on the cake for a guy who loves hoops.
“I understood what my role would be prior to me signing,” Murray said.
“They asked me to come here and help tighten up a defensive backfield and help us gel together using the experience that I’ve had in the past, playing in Hamilton and Toronto.”
“I can’t be the same person I was in Toronto in this system,” said Murray, who is well-known as a player who can shift positions seamlessly during a game. “I can’t be who I was in Hamilton. But I still have those tools and things that I’ve learned through experience in my back pocket.”
And he shares those lessons in abundance.
For a guy like rookie strong side linebacker Anthony Cioffi, Murray’s willingness to share has been a part of why his first year has been so successful.
“Rico’s always trying to teach me a little something that he knows,”
said Cioffi, who pulled in an interception during last week’s Eastern Final victory over Hamilton. “He’ll give me a little tip every day.”
“This is a guy who’s got coaching knowledge in a player’s body,” Thorpe said, adding that Murray has the respect of his teammates and is helpful in communicating the coach’s concepts. “He’s a guy I’ve leaned on to continue the message to the players,” he said.
For Murray, who made 74 defensive plays in 2018, including five interceptions and eight knockdowns, the path to success is clear, one that came into sharp focus for him while he was with the Argonauts.
Where once there was defiance and stubbornness, now there is complicity.
“He knows how his system works,” he said of Coach Thorpe. “Who am I to tell him how his defence works?”
Resistance was futile for Rico Murray. Cooperation, however, is proving quite fruitful.
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