WR Frank Murphy got a small taste of the NFL last fall in a kickoff return role that could help his chances to contribute in 2001
Frank Murphy has speed, size, quickness, hands – just about everything you would want in a wide receiver.
Too bad he's not a receiver.
Not yet, anyway. Not if you ask him.
Murphy, is of course, a receiver on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart, and he's walking, talking and catching passes like one every day on the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place. But it was less than a year ago that the Chicago Bears brought Murphy, then a rookie fresh out of Kansas State, into their training camp and tried to make him an NFL running back.
Murphy had played both positions at K-State, but the Bears felt his best shot was in the backfield. When that didn't work out and he was released by Chicago, the Bucs snapped him up, told him to grab a jersey in the 80s and let him spend a fall on the practice squad learning the position. It is a move that has ultimately pleased not only Murphy but the team, which feels it may have found a new pass-catcher even without focusing on that position in the draft.
"Absolutely, he has a chance of making a contribution this year, no doubt," said Bucs Wide Receivers Coach Charlie Williams. "He knows he can be a receiver. All he wants to do is get an opportunity to go out there and get the job done.
"We felt like all he needed was a chance. He's learning how to catch the ball, and he's getting better and better in that area. What (our scouts) saw in him was speed, quickness and special teams ability."
To the hardworking Murphy, however, the conversion is still a work in progress. When the switch is taken from the scouting room onto the playing field, it becomes more of an issue than simply matching his skills to his best position. To become a receiver, Murphy has a lot of mental work to catch up on.
"I still have a long way to go," he said after a morning practice on this day near the end of May. "I've got to pick it up. I've got to put pressure on myself to learn more about the receiver position than I learned last year. This is my first time playing the position, and I've got to learn how to read coverages better and just improve in all aspects. Overall, I'm proud of what I've accomplished, but I want to do better. I want to work harder."
That has never been an issue with Murphy. When he was promoted to the active roster last year on November 22, the same day the team released veteran receiver Andre Hastings, it wasn't necessarily to give him a significant amount of playing time. While Murphy was seen as a possible candidate for the kickoff return job (he was, in fact, active for one game and returned two kickoffs for 24 yards), the move was as much a reward for his work and progress throughout the fall.
"That was encouraging," said Murphy. "That's telling me that they like my work ethic and they like what they see on the field. Of course, I can improve, and that's my key right now. Every day isn't going to be easy. Some days it's hot like today and some times I might struggle mentally with the position, but the key is to keep coming back. Hard work always pays off."
Murphy earned praise for his progress throughout last fall and early spring, but he has resisted taking it too much to heart.
"I never look at that," said Murphy of the positive feedback. "I never get too excited about what they say. It's a compliment, but I just want to get better. I'm not listening to what people say to much. I'm keeping to myself on this and putting pressure on myself to get better."
And, indeed, he's hit a rougher stretch in recent days, as the Bucs have gotten deeper into their four weeks of voluntary practices, a series of 14 sessions that has drawn every player on the roster to Tampa. As talented as he is, he's still raw, and there are a lot of veterans on the other side of the ball.
"Everything was rolling real smooth until the defense started messing around with the safeties," said Williams. "Finding the safeties is the key to determining what routes the receivers are supposed to be. We're all struggling with that right now, because they're rolling the safeties late, as the quarterback is in his cadence.
"That's where he's struggling right now. A lot of (the receivers) are struggling with that, because there are adjustments to the routes based on the coverage. He'll get it. The more he sees it, the better off he's going to be."
Williams is working with a host of young receivers these days, molding a group of undrafted rookies who were signed in April. How that group of players such as Florida A&M's Jacquay Nunnally and West Virginia's Khori Ivy will shake out in training camp is hard to predict, but the Bucs do have a somewhat more proven commodity in Murphy.
"What you do know about Frank is that he's going to come off the line of scrimmage hard," said Williams. "He's going to play hard, he's going to play fast and he's going to do everything he can to make the right decision and make the right play."
Standing off to the side of the field after Tuesday's session, Murphy put his hands to his knees for the first time before straightening back up for the interview. He has put in another maximum-effort day under a Tampa sun that becomes more unforgiving each day. Still, he won't allow himself any complacency as he tries to absorb all the nuances of the second position he's been given in the NFL.
"All of it is difficult," said Murphy. "At running back, you're catching mostly short passes. At receiver, you're catching the ball in traffic and on the run. You've got to learn to adjust on the run, and that's hard. But the biggest thing is reading coverages at the line. When you line up, you've got to read the coverage, and they can disguise it so well. If you're not used to seeing that, it's going to be hard for you. There's a lot to learn, but I'm going to keep working at it.
"I'm hoping I can be the third or fourth receiver, just get my 'p.t.' here and there and then move my way up. If I keep working hard, I'll get there."
He may increase his chances of grabbing additional playing time if he can win the kickoff return duties, another job at which Buc scouts felt he could excel. While the team has found flashes of big-play ability on punt returns from the likes of Karl Williams and Jacquez Green, it is still searching for an impact player to line up deep on kickoffs. Murphy's combination of size and speed could make him that player.
Or, rather, Murphy could use those attributes to make himself into that player. That just takes a strong work ethic, something Murphy doesn't need any scout to tell him he has.