TAMPA — Standing 5 feet 7 and 182 pounds, Patrick Murray might be the most unassuming player in the locker room, but he's quietly making a case for one of the biggest roles on the Bucs.
Murray, a 23-year-old who was among the first players signed after Lovie Smith was hired in January, is challenging veteran kicker Connor Barth.
"I think he's a kicker that belongs in the league," Smith said Thursday after practice. "He's got talent, he can boom it, he's been consistent. … I think there's room for him in the league. There's 32 kickers, and I think he belongs in one of those spots."
Murray came to the Bucs as a kicker and punter, having excelled at both at Fordham. He earned All-America honors as a punter in 2011 and as a kicker in 2012, bringing a strong leg and confident personality to training camp.
"He can do everything: He can punt, he can kick off, he can kick onsides and he can kick the field goal with accuracy," special teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea said. "He's done a great job for us. He's earned his reps. Nothing's free here. If we didn't have confidence in him, he wouldn't have opportunities to work in the games."
Murray punted twice in the preseason opener at Jacksonville, averaging 45 yards, and he connected on a 33-yard extra point to tie the score in the fourth quarter. Despite kicking in an NFL game for the first time, he said he wasn't nervous.
"To be honest, I had no butterflies going into it," said Murray, expected to get more opportunities in Saturday's game at Buffalo. "When I stepped out on the field in pregame, I knew this is where I belonged. I felt extremely comfortable. I have a great snapper, a great holder, a great line, so when I lined up for that extra point, I was ready to go."
Murray has an unusual background — he was born in New Jersey but learned to kick on yearly summer vacations to his father Aidan's homeland of Ireland. His family has a long history in Gaelic football, a sport played on a huge field with no passing, the ball advanced by punting and trying to drop-kick it through or below uprights situated above a soccer-style goal. "It's what we do. It's what we grow up doing," said his father by phone from a football practice in New Jersey, where he still coaches kickers. "Kids in America, they grow up throwing baseballs. We grow up kicking."
Aidan Murray played Gaelic football for County Monaghan; his father before him played for County Fermanagh and his brothers were national all-stars. The sport is still popular with club teams in New York, and Patrick helped his to an under-18 state championship while in high school.
"He'd like to think he's 5-9, but he's more 5-8," said his father, noting his younger son, also named Aidan, is a 5-8 punter/kicker at Rutgers. "Pat's an honest 5-8, but he plays much bigger than that."
Coaches have been impressed by his attention to detail and his mental toughness, trying to create pressure situations in practice by having the rest of the team yelling and screaming during kicks at the end of drills. Truer tests will come in games, but he's shown he can handle everything thrown his way.
"He's short, compact, which allows him to be fast with his get-off times. That's huge," O'Dea said. "He's extremely accurate, because he works the small details: the rotation of the ball, the plant foot, staying down on it and coming up through it."
Smith has spoken highly of Barth and veteran punter Michael Koenen, though twice he has been careful to mention they're "two guys who we pay a handsome fee to" — Barth is due to make $2 million in the fall and Koenen $3.25 million, putting both among the top 10 highest-paid at their position.
Smith made it clear that for Murray to make the team, there must be more than financial savings — Barth, who missed last year with an Achilles tendon injury, had 18 field goals of 40 yards or longer in 2012, tying him for the NFL lead.
"Patrick has to beat him out. He has to take the job from Connor," Smith said. "He has to knock the champion out. And there is a difference between the two. No, he's got to knock the champion out and that's hard to do."
Before preseason camp, Murray made his annual trip to Ireland, enjoying the mental break and practicing on the same fields where his father and relatives once played. He has two more games to make his case for what would be a major upset on the final roster. "I think I've made a pretty good impression on the coaches so far, and I just hope to keep doing that," he said.
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.