Mark Wiedmer: UTC's Murrell not your typical walk-on player

Mark Wiedmer: UTC's Murrell not your typical walk-on player

August 5th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

The first words out of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defensive coordinator Adam Fuller's mouth regarding junior linebacker C.J. Murrell might surprise you.

"You mean 'O'?" Fuller said Saturday morning with a grin. "The first 'O' in 'Go Chattanooga Mocs'?"

It's supposed to be the other way around. A young man making his college football team's travel squad as a walk-on should become more recognized around campus after he makes the team.

Then again, Murrell's path to the Mocs may be unlike anyone else's in the program's 109-year history.

But better to paint you a picture. Or at least a 14-inch high letter made of body paint.

"I was the 'O' in 'Go,'" Murrell said at the close of UTC's second preseason practice atop Scrappy Moore Field as he recalled his freshman year in the student section.

"We'd spell out 'Go Chattanooga Mocs' at every home game. I started it. I even bought the paint. It cost about $30. I had a big, gold 'O' on my chest trimmed in blue."

But an O without an X was never enough for the former Hendersonville (Tenn.) High School running back and strong safety.

Recruited by the Ivy League's Brown and Division III academic giants Sewanee and Centre, Murrell instead chose UTC for its engineering department. He carries a 3.5 grade point average in civil engineering.

"It was killing me not playing, though," Murrell said of that 2009 autumn. "I went to see Coach [Russ] Huesman after the season. He said, 'OK, we'll give you a shot.'"

There are two kinds of walk-ons in college football. The vast majority are invited walk-ons, which means they're players the coaches strongly believe can play at the FCS level but don't have a scholarship to award them.

"We've usually got between 25 and 30 of those," Huesman said. "But we might not have more than one or two a year like C.J."

Both Fuller and senior running back J.J. Jackson noticed something different about Murrell from the first day he attended the open tryout in January 2010, however.

"He just set himself apart," Jackson said. "Just his effort, his mental toughness, his athletic ability. I think he's on every special team we've got. He's a very good hitter. He can play."

Added Fuller: "C.J. really moved well in the open tryout. He clearly knew the game. He's one of those kids that if we'd seen film on as a high school player we probably would have asked to walk on, but his freshman year was our first year [here]. We hadn't had much time the winter before to evaluate walk-ons. We were just trying to put together a signing class."

So Murrell had to make it the hard way. He threw every inch and ounce of his 6-foot, 195-pound frame into 6 a.m. workouts. He kept his grades high. He took nothing for granted.

"C.J.'s easy to coach," Fuller said. "He's a hard worker, conscientious, smart. He's probably one of our top 35 guys in terms of getting reps."

He got reps only in helping others make plays on kickoffs and punts his first season. Murrell didn't record a tackle all year, despite immediately making the travel squad.

"Jacksonville State," he said of his first road game. "It was crazy. I just remember thanking God for helping me accomplish something. I was part of the team, and I love these guys."

But that was just the beginning. He made multiple tackles last season in both the Elon and Citadel games. He could enter this season as a second-team linebacker.

Said Fuller: "C.J. helps us win games."

On the inside of Murrell's upper left arm, in Old English capital letters, is tattooed the word, "Desiderata."

"It's Latin for something that is wanted, needed, a necessity," Murrell said. "I guess I desired to play college football."

And just in case this year's student body needed any extra incentive to find at least 17 young men desiring to paint their bare chests and spell out "Go Chattanooga Mocs" for the Sept. 13 home opener against Glenville State, the Pioneers also were the home opener for Murrell's first game as "O."

Or was that a full circle on his chest?