OXNARD, Calif. -- Running back DeMarco Murray surprised more than a few people with his toughness during a breakout rookie season last year with the Dallas Cowboys.
Everyone knew about his speed and quickness after a standout career at Oklahoma, but his toughness and durability supposedly were concerns. It's one reason why he fell to the Cowboys in the third round after five other backs went ahead of him in the 2011 NFL Draft.
"The thing that excited me the most was the question mark on him: 'Was he a good inside runner?'" Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We saw that he could carry the mail inside. We didn't know that. The draft didn't know that. The NFL didn't know that. But he showed that. So that is very encouraging. That gives you the stability or credibility that you like as your back."
Credibility is certainly no longer an issue for Murray, who is already considered one of the team leaders after rushing for 897 yards in seven starts as a rookie, including a team-record 253 yards in his first start against the Rams, before suffering a season-ending fractured ankle.
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But it's not just for his play, which has been outstanding so far in camp, but also because of his mature attitude, competitive spirit and tough approach he brings to the meeting rooms as well as the field.
Murray shows that with his work after practice -- joining linebacker Sean Lee -- and the way he finishes runs with punishing blows to Cowboys defenders. Cornerback Teddy Williams was checked for a concussion after losing a recent battle with Murray.
"Just playing football," Murray said matter-of-factly afterward.
"I'm just trying to set the tempo right now," Murray added later. "I'm not trying to juke and shake. I'm trying to set the tone on the edge and let the [defensive backs] know there are some running backs out here that can run hard a little bit."
The Cowboys like all aspects of his game -- especially the toughness and mean streak.
"You can describe it any way you want to describe it -- mean streak, competitive spirit -- DeMarco's got it," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He's had it his whole life. He had it as a high school player. He had it at Oklahoma. It's the reason he's been so productive. He's a very mature player, and part of that maturity is emotional maturity and understanding the nature you need to play with.
"...It's a little bit of a mean streak. It's a little bit of a competitive spirit. You see it in all aspects of his game."
The Cowboys also are seeing a complete running back who can finally bring stability to the ground game not seen since Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith departed in 2002.
The revolving door at running back has included the likes of Troy Hambrick, Julius Jones, Marion Barber and Felix Jones, taking their turns trying to live up to the Cowboys' Hall of Fame legacy at the position.
There are those in the Cowboys' organization who believe Murray has a chance to be one of the great ones, like Smith and Tony Dorsett, though Murray is not ready to go that far.
"Those are two legends, two Hall of Famers," Murray said. "That has never crossed my mind, to be compared with them or to have anything to do with them."
All Murray is concerned with is building on his rookie season and improving on a ground game that had an embarrassing five touchdowns last year.
Running backs coach Skip Peete believes Murray will rush for 1,200 or more yards and a bunch of touchdowns if he stays healthy for 16 games. If he does, he would become only the second Cowboys rusher to top 1,000 yards in the last decade and the first to top 1,200 yards since Smith in 2000.
Murray wouldn't give any numbers as his goal, but said: "The sky is the limit. No one sets the bar higher than me."
Consider how much success Murray had last year without the benefit of a training camp because of hamstring issues and getting minimal touches as the third-string back early in the season before he took over the starting job.
The Cowboys are expecting a big jump in his second year. A full off-season program and full training camp mean he will be a complete part of the offense from the outset with roles in the passing game as well as being the primary runner.
"I feel good about DeMarco," Jones said. "He is still in his second year. He didn't get any time in his preseason last year. He didn't get any time preparing for his initial ballgames last year. He is going to gain from all his time he had in the off-season this year. I am excited about what DeMarco Murray can bring to the table."
Stability, credibility and the pain.
Just ask Teddy Williams.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760