Nerves were certainly there early on for Todd Murray, the only sophomore on the La Cañada High varsity football team last year.
Those all went out the window in his first game. Murray caught a 13-yard touchdown pass on the Spartans’ first drive of the season and later recovered a fumble at La Cañada’s 10-yard line with 5:44 to play in a 17-7 victory over Alhambra.
“People always ask me what’s one of your best feelings in your life,” said Murray, now a 16-year-old junior tight end/defensive end, “I’ve got to say that was definitely one of them — coming in, first touchdown of the season, new coach, varsity.”
It was by far Murray’s best game of the year and his young career, as he tallied his only touchdown and fumble recovery in nine games. For the season, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound athlete recorded 22 tackles (18 solo, one sack), three quarterback hurries and four receptions for 36 yards — his longest being the 13-yard grab against Alhambra.
“I’ve got to admit, I was really nervous that first game, but luckily I’m a big kid so I was able to kind of fend for myself, and hopefully that should carry me into this season with that experience I have,” Murray said.
Just like Murray, La Cañada’s season didn’t play out as promising as its first game suggested. After Alhambra, the Spartans lost their next eight games before capping the year with a 42-0 victory over Blair. The 2-8, 1-4 in Rio Hondo League run was La Cañada’s worst since a 1-7-2 season in 2007.
Hopes are much higher for both Murray and his team this year. La Cañada is eyeing a winning season and berth into the CIF Southern Section Mid-Valley Division playoffs.
After running the ball three times more than they passed (348-105) in 2012, the Spartans are looking to air it out more this season. Murray will play a big part in that.
“Todd's going to be our main target, we're going to throw to him a lot at 6-3 — he can jump,” La Cañada Coach James Sims said. “We're going to put him on the outside, out wide and throw some stuff to him. We're going to get some play-action and throw to him. He's going to carry a big part of the offensive load, I want him to touch the ball at least five or six times a game.”
Unlike last year, Murray and the rest of the La Cañada receivers competed in passing leagues this summer to build a rapport with senior quarterback Robbie Fuelling, who returns after starting about half the 2012 season.
Fuelling and Murray have already established a connection. Murray’s personal statistical goal is to catch at least one touchdown every game, as a prized red zone target.
“I just throw it up in the air and he’ll get it,” Fuelling said, “he’s one of my No. 1 receivers.”
Murray’s goal, which is already underway, is to also be more than a statistical leader.
“When you're in the 10th grade and you're the youngest kid on the team you don't say much, but now he's an 11th grader and in the middle of the pack and one of the few returning players and he speaks up,” Sims said. “He's more demanding of some of the other kids.”
It starts with Murray’s work ethic.
“He’s a stud, first of all,” Fuelling said of Murray. “The guy works hard in practice, in the weight room and he’s just a beast.”
Sims also pointed out Murray’s leadership on the defensive side of the ball.
“[Murray's] the fastest of the D-line group and he really gets after the quarterback; with those long arms he'll make it tough for quarterbacks to see,” he said. “And just his attitude, he gets really excited and loud and pumps up the others.”
It’s not only on the field where Murray sets an example. He has a cumulative 4.7 grade-point average in his first two years of high school after putting up a 4.8 GPA as a sophomore, when he took three honors classes and an advanced-placement course.
While the stage appears to be set for Murray to have an explosive junior year, his main goal is to help La Cañada post a more successful season. He admitted it was tough adjusting to a losing season in 2012 after he was part of a 7-2-1 campaign with the freshman team in 2011.
“It was tough with that season, but with a new coach and a transition year, it was kind of expected,” Murray said. “I’m definitely not going to take losing games anymore, we are definitely going to be much better this season.”