TAMPA — Three months ago, it seemed a gamble, Bucs coach Lovie Smith going with an unproven youngster in Patrick Murray, who beat out veteran Connor Barth in the preseason to handle the place kicking.
Now, with three games left in a 2-11 season, Murray has been one of the team's best moves, with five field goals of 50 yards or longer, one short of the NFL high this season. The 23-year-old rookie has been consistent and reliable, going 8-for-8 on field goals in the past five games with a confidence he has had from the start.
Ask Murray — signed as a free agent in January after being undrafted in 2013 — when he finally felt like he belonged in the league and he'll say it was weeks before Smith gave him the job.
"My first preseason game," said Murray, whose family has a proud history of playing Gaelic football in Ireland. "I was that confident in my ability. The way my dad has coached me, the work ethic he's instilled in me, the confidence I've gained from working with him for so long, I knew from the first preseason game that I belonged in this league, and I'm hoping to keep doing that."
Along the way, he has built confidence from his coaches, who, in a short time, have seen him make kicks under all the circumstances the NFL can present.
"We've seen him indoors, we've seen him when it's a little cooler, against the wind, with the wind," Smith said. "I think we've seen in just about every situation, and he's the same guy. He's been pretty consistent.
"I got here, he knocked it through. He's continued to do that. … It's really encouraging to have a young kicker that's just a solid guy, really liked in the locker room. We can talk about him for a while."
Murray has hit three field goals of 54 yards or longer, the most of any kicker this season, and he is one short of the team's career record of four, set by Barth over four full seasons. Murray credits his consistency to the way Smith and special teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea have set him up with situations in practice, which he says makes the actual kicks feel routine.
"It comes back to what we do in practice," Murray said. "They put me in situations where you're meant to be uncomfortable with the intention of making you comfortable. When I get out there on Sundays, it's just like practice."
Crowd noise, for instance, was new to Murray, who played at Fordham, which had an average home attendance at 7,000-seat-capacity Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx, N.Y., of 4,463 his senior year, 2012. He had a few college road games with big crowds — at Cincinnati, at UConn, at Army — but none was as big as every crowd he has played in front of this season.
Long snapper Andrew DePaola, who like Murray is in his first season in a key special-teams role with the Bucs, said Murray's success comes from his preparation and the time spent perfecting his skills with repetition.
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"What makes Pat a true professional is he does the same thing every day, in warmups, in practice and then in games," DePaola said. "If he feels he's lacking in an area, he gets out there. He's a worker.
"He's not satisfied with staying where he is. He gets it that you're either getting better or getting worse, that you never stay the same. We were in the weight room this morning, getting after it and challenging each other."
Murray has had the chance to meet fellow kickers before games, to be welcomed into the fraternity, proving himself more each week. The kicker he looks up to the most is Indianapolis' Adam Vinatieri, who started his NFL career when Murray was 5 years old in 1996.
"He is Mr. Clutch for a reason. He's somebody that I aspire to be," Murray said. "And (the Raiders' and former Seminole) Sebastian Janikowski with the big leg. How can you ignore somebody like that? And of course (the Falcons' and former Buc) Matt Bryant. He's been in the league a very long time and has been consistent. He's got a big leg as well.
"It's nice to be able to call these guys my peers, to see what's worked for them and how they got to where they are now."