He started all 16 games, called defensive signals for most of the season and finished with a team-high 107 tackles.
Yet, on Tuesday, Kenneth Murray Jr. said he doesn’t think he “ever felt comfortable” in the scheme of the 2020 Chargers.
So, now, with a new coaching staff implementing a new system that exploits his skills, the linebacker explained that he is nothing but encouraged.
“I definitely feel way more comfortable,” Murray said. “I definitely feel like it plays more to my strengths of being aggressive and playing downhill.”
Head coach Brandon Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill appear set to unleash Murray in his second season.
Their plans more closely align with what the versatile defender did at Oklahoma, where he performed well enough to become a first-round draft pick.
Among other assignments as a rookie, Murray at times was asked to drop into pass coverage. He said he has been told to plan on “blitzing a lot more, being aggressive” this season.
“I feel like this scheme fits me 100% to my strengths,” Murray said. “The big emphasis from him [Staley] is getting me to play more downhill.”
Murray became just the second Chargers rookie to finish with 100 tackles, joining safety Derwin James, who did it in 2018. But Murray had only one sack and no other quarterback hits.
He also struggled during the middle of the season and lost signal-calling duties at one point as the Chargers attempted to ease his load.
Having turned 22 in November, Murray is younger than fellow defenders Chris Rumph II and Nick Niemann, both of whom were just drafted by the Chargers.
“He’s able to run sideline to sideline, and he’s big enough to plug it up in the middle,” Hill said. “We see that he’s a flex guy. We want to try to use all those attributes to really get him going.”
The Chargers are transitioning to a scheme that will offer a 3-4 look and attempt to emphasize positional versatility. Murray and Drue Tranquill are the starting inside linebackers.
The two were unable to play together in 2020 after Tranquill, coming off his own breakthrough rookie year, suffered a season-ending ankle injury minutes into the opener at Cincinnati.
Murray ended up playing 93% of the Chargers’ defensive snaps despite a shoulder problem that required offseason surgery. He believes the original injury happened in college.
He still hasn’t been cleared medically, but Murray said he feels healthy and could play right now if the schedule called for it. He has been lifting weights and said he isn’t limited in any team workouts.
He also isn’t alone in feeling a sort of rebirth in the new defense. Safety Nasir Adderley also expressed increased optimism entering his second season as a starter.
In August, Adderley was pushed into the lineup at free safety after James went down with a knee injury that ended his season. Adderley had an up-and-down showing in Gus Bradley’s scheme.
Instead of lining up exclusively deep, Adderley is expected to be given chances to move around and perhaps better display the ball-hawking skills he showed in college at Delaware.
The Chargers have talked about Adderley’s ability to also play cornerback, something he suggested Tuesday remains a possibility.
“If anybody knows me, I’m an aggressor,” Adderley said. “I want to fly around out there. I think I’m going to have a lot more opportunity to do that.”
Staley became the Chargers’ head coach after he coordinated the NFL’s top-ranked defense with the 2020 Rams. At 38 and with only four seasons as an NFL assistant, he quickly has earned a reputation for maximizing the skills of others.
With the Chargers, players such as Murray, Adderley, edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu and lineman Jerry Tillery are popular projections to flourish in a system designed to create and seize upon mismatches.
“He tries to create matchups on defense,” Murray said. “That’s really been the biggest thing that I’ve noticed, just how he tries to schematically set up the matchups to take advantage of the offense.”
The Chargers are nearly two months from the start of training camp. They continue to work out only in shorts and T-shirts, moving mostly at walk-through pace. But the good vibes are in midseason form as a new regime brings a new hope.
“To put it plain, I’m just very, very excited,” Adderley said. “It’s different for us. It’s something a lot of us, maybe, had similarity from college. But it’s a very exciting defense.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.