FOX Sports Arizona sat down this week with new Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to discuss a range of topics, from the meaning of “High Octane” offense and the quarterback competition to his relationship with head coach Todd Graham and future aspirations. FSAZ: After going through spring practice, what did you take away about this offense and its potential?
Norvell: I saw a lot of growth. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of young guys, and this spring was important for them to get out and get reps. When we got here, the biggest thing we set out to accomplish with spring practice was to really create an identity — what this offense was going to be all about. There’s been a lot talk about standards and expectations (in the program), and a lot of that carries over to the field. The type of offense — downhill, physical, smashmouth football — to really establish that type of play was something I was excited to see the guys buying into and really starting to get by the end of spring. FSAZ: A lot of the focus from fans is on the quarterback battle between Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank. What are your impressions of that competition?
Each guy has had his moments, and each of them has gotten a lot better. It’s been back and forth. I would have loved to come out of spring and said, “Hey, this is our guy,” but each guy has competed. We’ve got a plan for where we’re going to start when guys report back for the fall, but it’s still a race. Hopefully a guy is going to separate himself here early in fall camp so we can get that decided, but I’m pleased with all three of the quarterbacks. FSAZ: Is there a particular combination of skills that could help one of those quarterbacks emerge as the guy to lead this offense?
The best thing about our offense is it’s so adaptive. Regardless of skill set, we’ve got to have a guy who can manage a football game. As the offensive coordinator, I’m going to make sure that whoever the quarterback is, our game plan is going to fit his skill set. There’s certain things we have to have. We have to have a guy that can hit on vertical shots. We have to have a guy that is a great decision maker and is not going to be high and low with his emotions. Those are the things we are looking for. It’s not necessarily the skill set of, “You have to run this fast or be able to do this or that.” FSAZ: This team lost a lot in the receiving corps to graduation. How do you assess where that position is heading into this season?
I’m really pleased with the first-level guys, the guys who kind of established themselves out of spring practice as starters, like Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross. Rashad kind of struggled early in spring ball, but he really came on strong at the end. Jamal showed he can be an all-around receiver, not just a guy who catches swings and those kind of routes, but a guy who can truly stretch the field and be well-rounded. We’ve got other guys that have shown flashes, but need to continue developing. It’s a position where there’s a lot of playing time up for grabs. FSAZ: Conversely, the running back position looks loaded. Is there any position better stocked?
That’s one that I’m feeling pretty good about. We’ve got some great leadership there and some good depth. Playing at this level, if you want to be a downhill running football team and you want to be a team that utilizes running backs like we do, you’ve got to have more than one. We want to be two or three deep at halfback and fullback. There are enough balls in this offense to go around. When you’re talking about snapping the ball 85-90 times per game, you can’t just have one or two guys. You’ve got to be able to spread the ball around. There’s going to be some great competition, but it’s going to take each and every one of those guys to get to where we want to go. FSAZ: More generally, there has been a lot of talk since Todd Graham arrived about his “High Octane” offense. What does “High Octane” really mean?
It all starts with our tempo. We want to push the tempo. With the phrase “High Octane,” it’s really a mindset. It’s a tempo which we play at, but it’s also a physical nature at every position. We’re coming 100 mph every single snap. We’re looking for explosive plays. We want to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and let them do what they do best. That’s probably the biggest thing when we talk about “High Octane.” It’s just stretching the field sideline to sideline and vertically down the field and doing it at an extremely quick pace. (As a wide receiver at Central Arkansas, Norvell started for four seasons. After graduating, he spent a season as an offensive graduate assistant on the Central Arkansas staff. When Graham took over at Tulsa, Norvell got an interview to join the staff through a brief encounter with Graham’s offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn. Norvell started as an offensive graduate assistant and receivers coach and eventually became passing game coordinator and director of recruiting. He followed Graham to Pittsburgh last season as co-offensive coordinator and again to ASU.) FSAZ: Having started from the bottom and sticking with coach Graham through five seasons, does getting to run the offense now kind of feel like the payoff of climbing the ladder?
I’ve been preparing my whole life for this opportunity. I’m a guy that approaches every job, each task I take on, like it’s the best one in the world. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of coach Graham’s staff for the last five years and to learn from him. This is something I’m ready for. It’s something I know I’ve worked my tail off to get to, and I’m excited about the opportunity. (Two of Graham’s previous offensive coordinators at Tulsa left for bigger opportunities. Malzahn became offensive coordinator at Auburn and is now head coach at Arkansas State, while Chad Morris parlayed one season at Tulsa into the same job with Clemson and is now college football’s highest-paid coordinator.) FSAZ: Two of coach Graham’s offensive coordinators at Tulsa went on to pretty big opportunities at BCS schools. Do you feel like your opportunity at ASU could evolve into something even bigger? You’re only 30 years old now; do you have aspirations of running your own team some day?
I think most coaches that are in it have that aspiration. I do have a goal of one day being a head coach, but right now my focus is on this year, this offense and doing the best job we can do. I want to prepare our guys to go out and compete for a Pac-12 championship. FSAZ: So you couldn’t yet envision yourself on the opposite sideline from coach Graham?
Don’t think we haven’t joked about that from time to time. Coach Graham has been amazing for me. I’ve learned so much from him on just how to run a program. You just hear him talking about the characteristics, the expectations and the standards he holds his players to, and it inspires everybody. Working for him has made me a better person. It challenges me every day to be the best that I can be. That’s the reason I’m in the position I am now. I approach every day trying to be the best, and coach Graham expects me to be the best. I’m telling you, there’s not a better coach out there, in my opinion, than Todd Graham. FSAZ: Coach Graham was heavily criticized when he left Pitt to take the job here. What was your reaction to everything that happened then?
I’ve always had a great amount of trust in coach Graham. I can tell you this was a decision that had a lot to do with family. Going to Pittsburgh, he never went into with a mindset that it was only going to be a year. With the commitment level of this administration and the opportunity for him to have his family back in a region I know he’s very comfortable with was just a great fit. That was something that was important to him. When he made the decision to come here, I was all in. When we were at Tulsa, we actually talked about Arizona State and just the opportunity that was here, so it’s kind of come full circle. FSAZ: So what was the conversation like when coach Graham told you he wanted to take the job here at ASU?
Funny story about that. A week and a half before, I was recruiting a receiver out in California. I had never been to Phoenix and really could not have actually pointed out Tempe as a suburb. I knew Tempe, but I didn’t know where it was. So, I was flying into Phoenix (for a layover) and I happened to be sitting in a window seat. I looked out the window right before we landed and I see the bubble (the Verde Dickey Dome) and the stadium. I just kind of did a double take, and I saw it said “Sun Devil Stadium” and thought, “Wow, that’s where Arizona State’s at.” I just sat there, and it didn’t even register in my mind that that opportunity was open. I just thought, “Man, that’s just got to be an incredible place to coach. What a great setup.” Then about a week later, this kind of all came to pass, and coach Graham called me and talked to me about it. I told him, “I’m all in with whatever you decide to do, but I’m looking forward to wearing shorts pretty soon.” FSAZ: There are a lot of different backgrounds on this staff. How has the group meshed so far?
It’s been great. When you look at our staff, from the first guy to the ninth guy, it’s a great group. They’re all great people, and when you go to work each and every day proud of the people you work with, it makes things fun. There’s been some learning, some feeling out of how exactly we want to do things, but everybody is on the same page. We all understand what the goal in mind is. FSAZ: How about coach Graham? He’s been pretty busy since he got here, making connections with the ASU fan base and the community. Have you ever seen him just exhausted?
I’ve been with him for five years, and I don’t ever see him exhausted. We go at it pretty good. If you can’t feed off his emotion, you might want to go get your heart checked out. He’s got a ton of excitement. Coach always jokes about doing a handspring out of your bed every morning, but it’s what we do.