TEMPE, Ariz. — Some wives suggest Breathe Right Strips for their noisy, night-time husbands. Maria Norvell is considering a headset for hers.
“My wife will tell you that I actually coach in my sleep,” Arizona State’s first-year offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell said. “There have been times where I have actually called out plays while I’m sleeping, but that isn’t happening much right now because coaches don’t sleep during the season.”
By now, it should be apparent that Norvell never sleeps on a defense. The Sun Devils’ dazzling, 63-point debut against Northern Arizona was one thing. That was an FCS opponent picked near the bottom of its conference in preseason media polls.
But a 510-yard, 45-point, Week-2 showing against Illinois — one of the nation’s best defenses in 2011? That was quite another.
The Illini lost standout defensive end/outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, a 2012 first-round pick of the Houston Texans. But Illinois returned eight defensive starters. This was supposed to be the strength of the club. Yet ASU’s receivers constantly found themselves in wide-open spaces, quarterback Taylor Kelly had plenty of time to find those spaces, the Sun Devils’ running backs averaged 5.1 yards a carry and Illinois’ defenders just looked lost in space.
“I think the motion confused them and all those sorts of things,” still-baffled Illinois coach Tim Beckman said after the drubbing. “I just thought that they (the Sun Devils) had a great scheme. There is no question about it. They were very successful with what they did offensively. They had 500 yards of offense.”
Credit the players for executing that scheme. Credit the coaching staff for drawing it up. But, by all means, credit the obsessed Norvell with tweaking, tugging and tailoring that scheme until it achieved that precocious performance.
“Coach Norvell deserves 100 percent of the credit,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “What I do is I dictate the vision and the parameters of who we’re going to be. We are going to be a physical football team. We are going to be a disciplined football team. We’re going to have misdirection in the run game and misdirection in the pass game and all those other things.
“But in my career, with the coaches who tried to keep their thumb on me, I didn’t excel. You have to trust your coaches. You take good coaches and you let them go.”
Offense isn’t just an occupation with Norvell. It’s an infatuation.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” said Norvell, whose ideas often come at inopportune moments. “I definitely have my fair share of napkin drawings, but that’s the great thing about iPhones now. You’ve got notes, so you can always plug the ideas into notes.”
There are times when Norvell attempts to escape his overpowering nature. He and his wife spent three of the past four summers vacationing with Graham and his wife, Penni, in Italy and France. The cellphone was off.
But even when he’s gazing at the Duomo in Florence or sipping wine on the Riviera, football is never far away.
“That’s all we talked about,” Graham said, laughing. “Our wives are fine with it because it gives them time to go and do the things they want to do.”
Among Graham’s litany of catch-phrases, “high-octane” headlines the marquee. Norvell is the embodiment of that phrase. He speaks so quickly he could moonlight as a radio pitchman. He alters course so often in a single sentence, you wonder how he succeeds in the task-oriented world of football.
“He reminds me of me when I was young,” Graham said. “We have the exact same personality.”
But the machinations of Norvell’s warp-speed mind belie a singular focus in goals.
“I saw him the other day and I was like, ‘How you doin’, coach?'” running back Cameron Marshall said.
“I’m doing fantastic,” Norvell responded. “Just working hard to try to be the best offensive coordinator in the country.”
“I was like, ‘that’s great coach,'” Marshall said. “But I was just asking how you’re doin’.”
When Graham arrived in Tempe, he lauded Norvell, 30, as a rising star whose name would soon be known nationally — a guy who wouldn’t last long before he got a better offer. It sounded like hyperbole, but as with most promises Graham has made, the early returns have backed the boasts.
ASU ranks 17th in the nation in total offense at 532 yards per game and seventh in scoring offense at 54 points per game. Another stat that will make old-school Sun Devils fans like former coach Frank Kush smile? ASU ranks 23rd in rushing offense at 248.5 yards per game.
Norvell said that’s simply a function of playing to ASU’s strengths.
“We want to get the ball in our best players’ hands,” he said, noting the Sun Devils’ well-chronicled depth at running back with Marshall, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. “Some say it’s a challenge with all the guys we have. I prefer to think of it as more of an exciting opportunity. I’d much rather have a bunch of guys that you want to get the ball to than only one or two guys.”
Graham has a history of short runs with past offensive coordinators. It has nothing to do with strained relationships. It has everything to do with success.
Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn emerged as one of the top coordinators in the nation in 2007 under Graham. Tulsa ranked first nationally in total yards per game and third in passing while becoming the first team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in a single season.
Graham also tutored Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, Clemson OC Chad Morris and Arizona OC Calvin Magee.
As everyone knows by now, ASU’s offense is predicated on tempo, misdirection and finding the best matchups to exploit on a weekly basis. Those are the broad-brush strokes – the qualities that other programs can also claim. To understand the nuance and detail of the Sun Devils offense requires hours of film study and playback. That’s where Norvell’s personality is perfectly suited to the task.
“They’re up (in the Carson Center) from like 5 a.m., 6 a.m. until 10 at night,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I came up last night just to kind of see what their thoughts were and what we were going to put in today, and it was pretty intense.
“They’re always looking for something — looking at plays, looking at players — trying to find holes in a defense, trying to find a way to be successful.”
Like Graham, Norvell is the product of a single-parent home. With that reality came added responsibility and a drive to succeed at a young age — a virtue instilled in him by his mother Kelly Wood and a host of “great coaches.”
Graham is certain that drive will open more doors for Norvell down the road, whether it’s next season or three or four more.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that one day, down the road, I’d like to be a head coach,” Norvell said. “Since I got in the business it’s something I’ve wanted to do. But the way I’m going to get there is by focusing on Missouri or whoever this week’s opponent is.
“I came into this business not knowing one person but I’ve been fortunate to get to the position I’m in today. I think that’s because I’ve been able to work hard and focus in on each and every day as its own.”