Latavius Murray is on top of the world, and not just because the Raiders running back was second in the AFC in rushing, got to experience the Pro Bowl and has watched with delight as his offensive line was fortified with the addition of Kalechi Osemele and the return of Donald Penn.
“I’ve got my flight booked, I’ve got my Final Four tickets,” Murray said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m there.”
Murray is headed to Houston to see his beloved Syracuse take on North Carolina Saturday at NRG Stadium. Murray grew up in upstate New York near Syracuse, going to a game at the Carrier Dome for the first time at age 6.
“If you’re from where I’m from, `Cuse was it, man,” Murray said. “Any kid who played basketball near Syracuse, their dream was to play there, and basketball was my first love. It changed when I got older and football began to reveal itself, but Syracuse will always be my team.”
His youth is full of memories of Orange teams with Etan Thomas and Todd Burgan in the mid-90s and the national championship team with Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara in 2003.
“Melo is my favorite player, and not because of what he’s done in the NBA. It goes back further than that,” Murray said. “I’ve met him a handful of times.”
Murray even took a break from training in Southern California _ Orange County, of course _ to watch his team play their opening round games in St. Louis (wins over Dayton and Middle Tennessee State) and then Chicago (Gonzaga and Virginia).
Given the way Syracuse finished the season, five losses in its last six games, Murray wasn’t sure his team would even make the tournament. When the Orange got a No. 10 seed, Murray didn’t even fill out a bracket.
“I’m biased. I’d always put Syracuse as the winner,” he said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure they’d get in. But once you get in the playoffs, it’s like any sport _ you do what you can to win each game and they’ve been doing that.”
Murray went to Onondaga Central High School, with a senior class of 65. Concentrating on football, Murray felt it was time to leave home and settled on Central Florida, where he played well enough to eventually become a sixth-round draft pick of the Raiders.
In his third season, and a full healthy off-season and training camp behind him for the first time, Murray rushed for 1,066 yards. His effectiveness dropped off as the season wore on, as it did for the entire offensive unit, but Murray put up good enough numbers to be a Pro Bowl alternate and eventually be added to the game.
There, along with teammates Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack and Charles Woodson, Murray felt a sense of respect for an organization that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002.
“We did some good things _ not as much as we wanted, but we could walk with our chins held high and know we had a lot to be confident about,” Murray said. “I think people recognize that and give a lot of respect to our team.”
The Raiders finished the NFL 28th in rushing, a figure that had more to do with the fact that their second-leading rusher was Carr (with 138 yards) than anything else. At the NFL owner’s meetings earlier this month, coach Jack Del Rio was pleased with Murray’s progress and wanted to make sure he got some help.
“If you get 1,000 yards it’s an accomplishment, even if it doesn’t quite mean what it did when the season was 12 games,” Del Rio said. “It’s a milestone, and he was solid. He’s still just scratching the surface.
“We would like to add someone to the backfield at some point, but it’s not like it’s a glaring need. We do have a good player there.”
The signing of Osemele, a guard considered one of the top run blockers in the NFL, will give the Raiders an added push up front.
“With some of the guys we’ve got in the trenches, it’s exciting to me as a runner,” Murray said. “I’m sure Derek is excited about what it will do for him and the guys on the outside too.”
Murray said he’s excited for the start of the conditioning program on April 18, but is trying not to get too caught up in the excitement of what most people consider an excellent off-season by the Raiders.
“At this point, everything is just on paper, and it doesn’t mean anything until we step on the field and prove it,” Murray said. “That goes for me as well as every guy out there. We’ve got to put the work in.”
— According to an ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera is expected to be available by trade. Rivera caught 32 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown in 2015 and in three seasons has 128 receptions for 1,221 yards and nine touchdowns.
Second-year tight end Clive Walford showed promise with 28 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie despite missing much of training camp due to injury. The Raiders also have Lee Smith, who is exclusively an in-line blocker, and Gabe Holmes, who was promoted to the 53-man roster last year in part because it was feared another team would claim him off the practice squad.