The 2023 NFL Draft has been heralded for its depth at the edge rusher position, but for all the Power 5 star power the class has, it was a Division II player who was named the best defensive end in college football this season.
Caleb Murphy from Ferris State beat out the likes of Myles Murphy, Isaiah Foskey, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Tuli Tuipulotu, Tyree Wilson and Jared Verse to win the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given to the best defensive end at any level of college football. The list goes even deeper than that, which says a lot about the competition Murphy beat out this year.
It takes a special player for a DII guy to join the likes of Aidan Hutchinson, Chase Young and Bradley Chubb as recent winners of the award. Murphy proved to be exactly that, as he broke the NCAA single-season record in sacks with 25.5 this season. He also led the nation with 39.5 tackles for a loss, and this came just a year after leading all DII defenders with 14.5 sacks in 2021.
Murphy will go down in history as the first non-FBS player to win the Ted Hendricks Award, and he did so while winning back-to-back Division II national championships to close out his collegiate career. As he prepares for a career in the NFL, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of many of his fellow award winners into a long career full of success.
Windy City Gridiron’s lead draft analyst Jacob Infante had the chance to talk to Murphy about his sack record, his invitation to the Shrine Bowl, his approach as a pass-rusher, and much more.
JI: You had a fantastic collegiate career and finished it off breaking the NCAA record in single-season sacks. Was there a certain point in the year where you found out breaking the record could be a reality?
CM: I went into the year...obviously, you can’t sign with an agent; you can communicate with them and stuff like that. But then, I sat down with one of them and my mother, [and] he’s talking about what it is I need to do to separate myself, because I am a Division II guy. I needed to do something spectacular. Obviously, I had, the year before, led the nation for DII sacks at 14.5. But the biggest thing was, I needed to do some better than that, because I felt like I had more in me. I had set a goal that 21.5 [sacks] was a goal.
After my 5-sack game in Week 2 [against Lenoir-Rhyne], I was like, “okay, I can do this”. It’s a me thing; I just gotta continue to work, continue to push myself to the best abilities that I can do, and just tell myself I could beat anybody in front of me. Once I got to 6.5 sacks in two weeks, I was like, “okay, this is something that I can actually do.”
JI: You were the first Ted Hendricks Award winner to not play in the FBS, let alone to play DII. What does it mean to you to be recognized as the best defensive end in college football?
CM: Obviously, I’m a DII guy, so, you know, some people see it as not as rewarding because I play different competition, I guess they would say. But 25.5 sacks is pretty cool, so I think that helped me a lot. To be the first guy to do it, it’s really nice to put DII on the map, some of my guys, just continue to show wherever you are, you can be found. If you’re a good football player, you can be found. That’s what I took it as, continue to do what I’m doing, [and] I can get to where I want to.
JI: Some may argue that you could face a steeper learning curve going from DII to the NFL. What do you say to that, and how do you feel like your last few years have prepared you for that jump?
CM: My first year out of the last two years, I played against some NFL O-linemen. Dylan Pasquali, obviously, he’s in the XFL now, and then Zane Obeid, those were my teammates. He played for the Lions for a little bit in the summer; he retired early with his situation. Going up against those guys, it made me know these are the type of guys, if not better, that I’ll see, so just to push myself that hard. I played with guys that wanted the same goals as me, so we pushed ourselves every day.
When it came to , I got some calls from some agents, I was just talking about how, if I have a good year, things could be bright for me. They put it in perspective, and it was like a wow moment, but then it was like, “okay, this is what I wanted to do my whole life. I just had to take a different route”. It was really cool that the route that I took, got me there, and I just pushed myself hard every day, and I made sure that I was working just as hard as anybody else, if not harder, to be the hardest-working guy out [there]. I was working hard, trying to be better every day.
JI: Of the two consecutive DII championships you won at Ferris State, which one would you say felt more rewarding, if you had to choose?
CM: As a selfish person, I would say this year, because I just felt like there’s a chip on my shoulder. I don’t want to be looked at as a DII guy. I want to be looked at as the Ted Hendricks Award winner above everything, so winning this year was good. As a team player, I’d almost have to say the first one for the school. We did it in style, we didn’t lose a single game, we blew almost every team out. Actually, every team we played we blew out besides one. It was really nice, because we did everything that we said we wanted to before the year started, and then we did it again, too. But the first one as a team player, that was that was most definitely a good one.
JI: What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming Shrine Bowl appearance?
CM: To compete. I’m a competitor, so I’ve been getting to go up against somebody that they say is different from [the level] I play. I’m excited to get after that and play with some of the top competition around. That’s the biggest thing: just to compete.
JI: I wanna go through your approach right before you engage with a blocker. You’re rushing the passer, what are some of the things you’re looking for when you’re determining which moves to use on a guy?
CM: From watching film, you look at their feet. You see if they have slow feet or fast feet, so you go into the game, you’re like, “okay, he’s gonna set pretty well on me, so I’ll go out for a couple of times to make them slow down. I have a good get-off, so I know that they’re gonna gameplan towards that. Another thing is like their hand placement. I’m gonna see how they’re gonna place their hands on me every time, and wherever they put them, I’m gonna have to play towards that advantage. It’s got to be quick and fast.
My biggest thing is three to six seconds, if I can give them my all for three to six seconds and work a move, there’s not much that I think could stop me. That’s what my mindset is: three to six seconds, and then having a move and go on with it, and if it doesn’t work, making sure I have a counter move towards it. I think that’s what I thought going into it.
JI: If you had to choose, what would be your favorite move in your arsenal?
CM: It’s like a jab, and then it’s like a jump-through. So a jab, and then a jump-through to the outside with a club-rip. It’s really good; that’s the go-to move for me, for sure.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
CM: I have two dogs. I have a Cane Corso and I have a French Bulldog, so I like to spend time with them, Letti and Kodak. Other than that, I love my family, so I try to surround myself around them a lot. Besides that, I got a roommate that I spend a lot of time with, and then some friends back home, too.
JI: How old are the dogs?
CM: Kodak is, I want to say, about to be 6 months, and Letti is almost 3.
JI: Do they get along? I know it’s always a unique dynamic bringing a puppy in with a dog older than them.
CM: It’s nice, they get along. Well, when they see each other. Kodak’s with my girlfriend for some time. Obviously, they get together when I see her, because she lives in Ohio. They get along really nice.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
CM: Somebody who’s gonna come in and learn every day, take advantage of every day. I’m gonna give you my all. You’re never gonna have to question if I’m gonna be there for you for whatever the team needs, for whatever I’m supposed to do. I’m always going to be a team player. You’re never going to hear me talk myself up much. I’m here to just do whatever benefits the team.