In the second quarter of last week’s victory against Air Force, Alexander Teich reached his boiling point. Navy’s starting fullback had been slowed by a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks, and on this particular run up the middle the sophomore twisted his ankle again.
He hobbled to the sideline and spiked his helmet, fuming with the knowledge that his day was likely done.
So into the game went backup Vince Murray, a straight-ahead runner with a workmanlike attitude. The Midshipmen leaned on Murray for 22 carries in the final three quarters as the game turned into a defensive battle with heightened emphasis on ball control and field position.
And since Teich is doubtful with that sprained left ankle, Murray is in line to earn his first career start Saturday when Navy (3-2) visits Rice (0-5).
“He’s been a very consistent player for us all season,” fullbacks coach Mike Judge said. “Every time we put him in there, he hasn’t disappointed us, and that’s why he keeps getting the opportunity to go back in. We never planned for him to play as much as he did, but I thought he did a great job with the situation he was put in.”
The same could not be said of Murray at this time last year.
A two-way standout in high school, the 6-foot-1, 217-pound junior was recruited to play linebacker at other Football Bowl Subdivision schools, but he chose Navy because the Mids offered him a chance to run.
Murray spent his plebe season as an understudy to former stalwarts Adam Ballard and Eric Kettani, but last year didn’t go as planned. Instead of battling for a spot as one of Kettani’s backups, Murray developed a fumbling problem and spent all of 2008 correcting it. In the meantime, Teich implanted himself as Kettani’s successor.
But Murray didn’t get discouraged, and in the spring and fall camps he worked his way back up the depth chart. He is not as athletic as Teich, but he is a tough runner rarely taken down by a single tackler.
This year, Murray has epitomized the status of the Navy fullback position, occupied by an inexperienced group learning on the job. He is averaging only 3.5 yards a carry and hasn’t scored a touchdown, but he is dependable to move the chains and minimize mistakes.
“We take what the defense gives us,” Judge said. “If it’s there, we’re going to exploit it. If it’s not there, we’re going to do our job and sell the fake. It’s tough to judge how well we’re doing based off production because a lot of it is dictated by what the defense is trying to stop.”
That doesn’t mean there’s not room to improve. Teams often take away the fullback dive when playing Navy, but the Falcons forced the game inside. Slotbacks accounted for only four of Navy’s 56 carries - the rest were by Teich, Murray and quarterback Ricky Dobbs. And even though Air Force won the battle inside, Murray came close to breaking off a long run on a couple of occasions.
“Coach Judge and I watched the film, and there’s a lot of little things that I need to work on,” Murray said. “I just need to hit the hole harder and stay upright. Fullback is a funny position. It’ll seem like there’s nothing there, and then all of a sudden you’ll pop out [into open field] when it looked unexpected from the stance.”
Having earned the trust of the coaching staff, opportunities for Murray to become a playmaker are just beginning.
“The more plays that you get, the more experience you get,” he said. “Just working with the offense and getting a feel for the game helps you out a lot. I would say I got more comfortable as the game went on last week, and that will help me out this week.”