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Murphy is next in line

Harvard’s Kevin Murphy has the mobility of a former tight end, but also the size (6-7, 295 pounds) to be an elite left tackle. Harvard’s Kevin Murphy has the mobility of a former tight end, but also the size (6-7, 295 pounds) to be an elite left tackle. (File/David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/2010)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 22, 2011

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Kevin Murphy has never been one to sit back and wait for opportunities to come to him.

Even on the gridiron, the 6-foot-7-inch, 295-pound senior left tackle for Harvard’s football team would much prefer to take the proactive approach, run blocking vs. pass protecting, though he is adept at both.

“If you asked me, ‘Would you rather fire off and go hit a guy, or sit back and let a guy come to you,’ which do you think I’m going to chose?’’ Murphy said, breaking into a laugh after Wednesday’s practice for today’s Ivy League game against visiting Princeton.

It was a rhetorical question, of course. But it was clear that Murphy, a native of San Clemente, Calif., was not about doing anything passively on the field.

“It’s kind of the attitude, not just of our offensive line, but of our offense - and even our defense,’’ Murphy said. “We’re an attack-style team.’’

And in Murphy, the Crimson have an attack-style left tackle, one whom coach Tim Murphy says has the chance to be the best offensive lineman in the Ivy League and one of Harvard’s best NFL prospects since Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl center now with the Baltimore Ravens.

“When we recruited him as a freshman, this is where we envisioned him,’’ the 18th-year coach said of Murphy (no relation), who received tepid Division 1 recruiting interest after he was converted from a tight end to a tackle during his junior year in high school.

“He’s a left tackle with tight end-type athletic ability,’’ Tim Murphy said. “So now, instead of being 6-7 and 242 pounds, he’s 6-7 and 300 pounds. He’s stronger and faster than he was when he was a gangly, tight end-looking, offensive lineman. He’s definitely one of the top three offensive linemen we’ve had since we’ve been here.’’

The Crimson projected the return of a veteran and dominant line this season. But when 6-5, 300-pound senior guard/tackle Ben Stabler was diagnosed with a brain tumor last spring, it was the first of three hits the line absorbed.

It was followed by the loss of junior Matt McCarthy, a 6-5, 290-pound tackle who underwent surgery on a shoulder injury suffered in the offseason, and Nick Scheidler, a 6-5, 270-pound junior tackle who suffered a severe concussion at the start of camp, leaving the Crimson with gaping holes to fill.

“So all of a sudden, we go from having a 6-5, 300-pound offensive line across the board, to only Murph,’’ said Tim Murphy. “So he’s had to assume a much different leadership role and he’s been the anchor of our offensive line with a bunch of underclassmen, including a freshman right tackle and a sophomore right guard and two brand-new starters at center and left guard.

“And he’s played great. He’s played flat-out great.’’

Described by his coach as “one of those silent but deadly types who doesn’t say much,’’ Murphy had to go outside his comfort zone and assume more of a leadership role. He became a mentor to freshman right tackle Will Whitman, who has started all five games.

When Whitman struggled with his footwork during one practice and got yelled at by his position coach, Murphy pulled the freshman aside and gave him a quick tutorial. “For a good five minutes, we worked on that one step I had messed up on,’’ Whitman recalled. “He’s probably going to go to the NFL next year and you can’t really say how valuable it is to have that, to pretty much be a mentor to you. That’s awesome. I’ve never played with anybody as good as him and it’s awesome to play with him.’’

“He’s really stepped it up since the preseason and in the first few games and he’s been playing really solid as a freshman,’’ Murphy said of Whitman. “I know he’s going to have a great career.’’

Murphy’s mentorship of Whitman has been an extension of the role he has played to younger brother Kyle, a 6-7, 275-pound tackle who remains one of the top uncommitted offensive line prospects in the nation. Unlike his brother, Kyle has drawn attention from every school in the Pac-12, in addition to national programs such as Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Florida.

“Whenever I get to talk to him, which is like once a week nowadays because my schedule is so hectic, it’s sort of like deep brother conversations,’’ Murphy said. “I just love being able to talk to him and coach him up. Luckily, I got my brother started on the right track with lifting and nutrition and gaining weight and still being athletic, and it’s paid off for him and that’s all I really want to see.’’

Murphy’s presence on the offensive line has also helped Harvard’s defensive linemen stay sharp.

“I know when I go to his side, I’m going to get some good work in against him,’’ said Josue Ortiz, a 6-4, 260-pound senior defensive tackle who has a team-leading five sacks this season.

“He comes off the ball pretty hard and it’s always a challenge. He’s someone who’s going to make you better and be on top of your game,’’ Ortiz said. “From a team perspective, it’s always good to have that solid lineman at left tackle to protect the quarterback. When I came in here, James Williams [now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] was the left tackle, and when [Murphy] came in there really was no difference. He plays just as hard.

“You know when an offensive lineman does well when you don’t hear his name, and I never hear anything about him holding or getting beat on blocks. He’s been a tremendous lineman for us.’’

In last week’s 42-3 win over Bucknell, Murphy and the offensive line helped Harvard rush for 223 yards against a team that was ranked fourth in the nation in run defense.

“I feel like the O-line group was the big question mark of the team during preseason, and those guys like Josue, John Lyon, and Nnamdi [Obukwelu] helped us answer that question,’’ Murphy said. “We kind of established our identity as a tough O-line and we pride ourselves on running the ball and firing off and punching guys in the mouth. There’s not a better defense in the Ivy League and no other guys I would want to go against than the guys I go against day in and day out.’’

But Ortiz knew precisely why NFL scouts this season have beaten a path to Harvard Stadium to evaluate Murphy.

“It’s his footwork and his length,’’ Ortiz said. “I normally can go around people, but when he’s out there, he’s not only good with his feet, but he’s also good with his hands. It’s really hard to run around him.’’

A engineering sciences major, Murphy has combined his physical attributes with a keen intellect. He realizes now is not the time to begin daydreaming about the next level.

“I don’t earn my respect as a Harvard football player by going to the NFL and playing for a team there; I earn it as being a Harvard football player and being a teammate and a leader,’’ he said. “I don’t want to focus on [the NFL] too much, because I feel like I’d be doing myself a disservice, and more important, my team. I’d rather wait until we win the ring, because right now where I improve my stock is on Saturdays.’’

Murphy, who was voted second-team All-Ivy last season after starting 10 games, would like nothing more than to wrap up his Crimson career by helping Harvard capture its first Ivy League title since 2008.

“It’s been a long time coming,’’ he said. “We haven’t had the ring in two or three years and it’s time to go on the attack and go get it. It’s not going to come to us.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.