It’s hard to get nervous about your first college start if you don’t know you’ll be making it.
Center Christaphany Murray was aware that he could play against Cincinnati during UCLA’s season opener Saturday, but he didn’t find out he would take the first snap until coach Chip Kelly told him shortly before the game.
“I was just excited,” Murray said Tuesday. “That’s like a one-time-in-life experience.”
It was also a rarity for the Bruins. Murray became the first true freshman to start in an opener along the offensive line for UCLA since guard Najee Toran did it against Virginia in 2014.
“It’s a real tribute to Chris,” Kelly said.
Murray’s rise to a starting role was all the more unlikely considering he mostly played guard during his three seasons at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. UCLA offensive line coach Justin Frye triggered the position switch in the off-season by telling Murphy he might be moving to center at the college level.
The transition was eased by someone familiar with going from Mater Dei to UCLA. Chris Ward, who played guard at both schools, coached Murray as the Monarchs’ offensive line coach and further developed his technique as part of a new offensive lineman training venture also run by Kody Afusia, a former center at Hawaii.
Playing center involves more than hiking the ball and blocking. Murray said he had to learn more about defensive formations and concepts that would indicate when blitzes might be coming. He also had to become more vocal as one of the leaders of the offense.
Murray appeared to excel on all fronts in his UCLA debut with the exception of a few low snaps.
“Dealing with the position change while dealing with the exponential increase in game speed is very tough,” Ward said. “But if anyone can do it, it’s Chris.”
Murray said he felt more at ease Saturday after absorbing his first hit. But he failed to drink enough fluids after pregame warmups on a hot day and experienced cramps in the second half that prevented him from fully extending his legs. He departed the game and was replaced by Zach Sweeney.
Some intravenous fluids helped Murray feel better and return to the game. Hydrating sufficiently isn’t the only improvement he intends to make this weekend when the Bruins play at No. 6 Oklahoma.
Murray knows the offensive line can play better after giving up five sacks and helping the running backs average only 3.3 yards per carry with the exception of Kazmeir Allen’s 74-yard touchdown run.
“As a freshman in my first game, I was trying to come in and feel stuff out,” Murray said, “but there’s no time for feeling out. So first play, I’ve just got to come out and smack.”