Let's call a college football season 13 games. 12 and the bowl.
Across Sports Reference's college football data, which goes back to 2000, Aqib Talib holds the record for most games within a single season with at least three pass break-ups. He had seven in his 2006 season with the Kansas Jayhawks -- and he only played 10 games. That's absolutely bananas. The next highest number is shared by a few players -- Tramon Williams for Louisiana Tech, Julian Love for Notre Dame last season -- at four.
Four games with at least three pass break-ups. Over a thirteen game season.
After posting four pass break-ups against the Utah Utes on Saturday, Washington redshirt sophomore CB Byron Murphy has broken up at least three passes in four of the last nine games he has played.
Let me put that to you another way.
In his first nine games ever as a college football player, Byron Murphy III has broken up at least three passes four times.
The Washington program saw this coming. When they started him as a redshirt freshman, they knew he was going to take the world by storm. He had won their defensive scout team MVP award and their weight room award in his true freshman season in 2016. One person in the program thinks he might be the most talented corner to come through in the past few classes -- yes, that includes Sidney Jones and Kevin King.
But Murphy's introductory campaign was cut short by a fractured foot after Week 3 of the 2017 season -- he returned to close out the season and looks healthy again for 2018. If he continues on this disruptive pace, he'll have around 20 pass break-ups across his first 13 games -- across his first season, if you will.
Only one other player in college football history cleared 20 PBUs in their freshman "season." That was Merrill Noel, at Wake Forest, in 2005.
Of course, we're taking a concession for Murphy's injury that isn't reflected in the numbers of other players who would benefit from such mathematic gymnastics. But the air is undoubtedly rarefied, regardless of how many or few Murphy's company truly is.
These are all four of Murphy's PBUs against Utah last weekend:
The first thing we should notice is that PBUs are a highly subjective stat. Again, Murphy's in elite company, but statistically elite company can always have blurry lines on the edges.
But we can talk about the clear conclusions drawn from Murphy's early 2018 tape:
- Murphy has excellent change-of-direction ability. Great body control and agility
- Murphy has nice overlapping instincts; an aggressive mentality
- Murphy understands how to attack the catch point despite lacking ideal size and length
All of these pass break-ups are impact plays, in that they likely prevent first-down conversions. But the biggest tone-setting play is the third clip, on which Murphy waxes slot WR Britain Covey.
Washington's sending the opposite corner on a zone blitz here, which disguises their typical coverage shell from Utah QB Tyler Huntley. The three under, three deep shell allows Murphy to play aggressive downhill, while Huntley would expect him to gain depth in his typical Cover 3 responsibilities. He does well to time his close with the arrival of the football to initiate contact as Covey tries to reel in the catch.
Many of Murphy's best plays in his redshirt freshman season came on similar opportunities to overlap zone coverage and make unexpected closes on the football.
Murphy is playing a deep third here, but once the only active receiver to his side vacates on the mesh crosser, he gets locked in on the quarterback and the route concept to make a play on the ball.
You can only play such an instinctive and aggressive brand of football with nice change-of-direction ability -- you need the short area agility to recover when you work yourself out of place. Murphy's compact frame allows him to work tough angles and continue being active and disruptive in short areas.
A great example here: Murphy, more accustomed to zone coverage on the outside than man coverage in the slot, bites hard on the little spin release from the slot receiver. But because he has great fluidity in his hips to redirect and the explosiveness to get back into the play. While this ball is off target, an on-target throw likely would have ended in a tackle short of the sticks.
Murphy will have to answer questions about his long term health, as well as hit some big measurable benchmarks given his lack of ideal size. But his instincts and ball skills alone make him a highly desirable prospect for NFL teams in need of high-impact plays on the defensive side.
Murphy has a big test coming up this Saturday in Arizona State's N'Keal Harry, who could expose Murphy's struggles with size given his imposing frame. If he can clear that test with good tape, there will be little to question for the next NFL corner to come out of the Washington machine.