Full steam Ahead: Latavius Murray's 'Tay Train' Kicks Into High Gear

Posted by: Latavius Murray

EDEN PRARIE, Minn. -- The legend of the "Tay Train" was birthed more than a decade ago.

Back in his hometown of Nedrow, New York, Vikings running back Latavius Murray was bestowed his nickname from the public-address announcer at Onondaga Central High School. It was two seasons before he was named the 2007 Gatorade Football Player of the Year in New York when Murray hit the throttle as a sophomore, rushing for 1,609 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Chugging like a coal engine, barreling full-steam into the end zone, Murray would hear the familiar voice over the loud speaker like a conductor alerting passengers to a train arriving at the station.

“When I scored,” he said, “which was often in high school.”

Since Week 7, Murray has kicked his locomotive into high gear, picking up 399 of his 496 rushing yards in a five-game span along with five touchdowns. It’s a complete change from where he was just two months ago. In the first four weeks of the season, Murray had 14 carries for 38 yards, totaling 2.71 yards per rush.

He missed a majority of the Vikings' offseason program after undergoing surgery on his ankle, which set him back and allowed rookie Dalvin Cook to surpass the veteran running back on the depth chart in becoming Minnesota’s featured rusher. While Cook averaged nearly 19 carries a game, Murray’s workload was diminished to two, sometimes three rushes. When Cook was healthy, not a single pass was thrown Murray’s way.

The player the Vikings brought in to replace Adrian Peterson in the offseason on a three-year, $15 million deal was off the field more than he was on it.

When Minnesota lost Cook for the season on Oct. 1, all the focus initially shifted toward Murray before the Vikings found a steady rhythm between him and Jerick McKinnon. It took several weeks from that point, but Murray finally got back on track.

In his past five games, Murray is averaging 4.48 yards per rush. He has gone from struggling to find space for more than a 5-yard gain to ripping off a season-long run of 46 yards last week in Detroit.

He has sparked Minnesota’s recent surge of red zone scoring, turning another gear when he gets toward the end zone. In the past five weeks, Minnesota has gone from the sixth-worst red zone scoring team to scoring on 76.5 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line. Of Murray’s five touchdowns, four have come in the red zone.

“It’s a strength of mine, just having a nose for the end zone,” Murray said. “I just have to use that to my benefit and continue to find ways to get in the end zone.”

What’s behind Murray’s recent surge? For one, it’s a product of circumstance.

The Vikings' run game hasn’t missed a beat since Cook went down. Murray and McKinnon have been the catalysts in pushing 124.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL. Murray has also exercised his ability to pick up big chunks of yardage, having ripped off five rushes of at least 15 yards.

His workload has increased significantly as he has flushed out his role as the bruiser who can fight his way to extra yardage. Nearly half off his rushing yards (202) have come after initial contact, providing the physical threat Minnesota needed in the run game.

“I think he is starting to feel a lot more healthy or comfortable, whatever it is,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s continued to do a good job and that will be important this week that we possess the football.”

Added quarterback Case Keenum: “He’s taken a handoff and he’s moving forward. It’s fun to hand the ball off to that. When he’s moving forward, he’s got all his momentum going forward, reading defenses and making good cuts."

Murray is on pace to surpass the 788-yard mark he hit with the Raiders in 2016. A good place to continue that push is in Atlanta this Sunday against a Falcons defense that has allowed 112.3 rushing yards per game during a three-game win streak, but hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, a mark that Murray reached in Week 7 against the Ravens. Atlanta’s red zone defense is one of the more difficult that Minnesota will face down the stretch, holding its opponents to scoring on 47.2 percent of its trips inside the 20.

His slow start behind him, Murray is refreshed entering the final stretch of the season where the Vikings look to lock up their playoff fate well before Week 17. A revitalized run game sparked by Cook early on and carried by Murray and McKinnon has played a critical role in the Vikings' seven-game win streak and 9-2 record.

“Just trying to trust what I’ve been doing,” Murray said. “Continuing to get better, continuing to try and stay in a rhythm and try to feel better each game. I think that’s really what’s helped. And obviously the offensive line -- we have this great game plan and we’ve just been executing and clicking.”

That’s where he’s at right now, having scored a touchdown in four of his past five games. He’s finally gotten his chance to introduce the Vikings to the Tay Train, which is more than just his touchdown celebration and a giant tattoo across his back.

“It’s been around for a long time. A lot of people think that I’m just going out there and tooting my horn and stuff like that, but I’ve been the Tay Train for a while,” Murray said. “I want everybody to know that.”

Source: ESPN | Courtney Cronin | December 2, 2017