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Want a glimpse of FSU’s future under Mike Norvell? Watch the Cotton Bowl

The foundations the new Seminoles coach is preaching in Tallahassee are on display at Memphis, the top-15 program Norvell left behind.
Florida State football coach Mike Norvell talks to staffers after a news conference on Dec. 8  in Tallahassee. Norvell is Florida State's new coach, taking over a Seminoles program that has struggled while he was helping to build Memphis into a Group of Five power.
Florida State football coach Mike Norvell talks to staffers after a news conference on Dec. 8 in Tallahassee. Norvell is Florida State's new coach, taking over a Seminoles program that has struggled while he was helping to build Memphis into a Group of Five power. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Dec. 27, 2019

ARLINGTON, Texas — During his introductory news conference earlier this month, Florida State coach Mike Norvell outlined his vision for the Seminoles.

Recruiting based on fit and family. An offense built for playmakers. A program committed to special teams. And a big-picture culture built on service, sacrifice and respect.

If you want to an early glimpse at what those philosophies look like in practice, don’t focus on Tuesday’s Sun Bowl matchup with Arizona State. Turn your attention 600 miles across Texas to AT&T Stadium. That’s where his former team, No. 15 Memphis, will play its biggest game in program history — Saturday’s Cotton Bowl against No. 13 Penn State.

Related: Why FSU’s Mike Norvell isn’t Willie Taggart 2.0

Norvell, obviously, won’t be there. But you can see the foundation of what Norvell wants to build at FSU in the program he left behind.

Whether it's recruiting, hiring coaches, making a choice on my future, it always comes down to two factors: fit and family.

Memphis quarterback Brady White (3) celebrates as then-coach Mike Norvell, center, lifts the trophy after they defeated Cincinnati for the American Athletic Conference championship.
Memphis quarterback Brady White (3) celebrates as then-coach Mike Norvell, center, lifts the trophy after they defeated Cincinnati for the American Athletic Conference championship. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]

Because Norvell wasn’t going to lure many five-star talents into the Group of Five, the first part of his recruiting vision was vital at Memphis.

It didn’t matter that Kenny Gainwell was an undersized three-star prospect; he fit Norvell’s system. Norvell fended off Ole Miss to pluck Gainwell out of Mississippi and turned him into an all-AAC running back with almost 2,000 all-purpose yards this season.

Related: As the early signing period ends, what’s next for Florida, FSU?

When bigger schools backed away from receiver Damonte Coxie after he tore his meniscus as a high school senior, Norvell didn’t give up on the former LSU commit. Coxie is the second player in Memphis history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

“He’ll find ball players,” Gainwell said.

To win at FSU, he’ll need to do more than find sleepers. He’ll have to sign blue-chip talents, like his former quarterback who embodies the second part of Norvell’s recruiting ideal.

Brady White was one of the biggest recruiting coups in Arizona State history when he signed in 2015 as the nation’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback and a U.S. Army All-American. One of the biggest reasons why White chose the Sun Devils? Then-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.

“I was drawn to him,” White said.

White was drawn to Norvell again three years later when he reunited with Norvell as a grad transfer. His 59 touchdown passes in two seasons are tied for the third-most in program history.

White’s relationship with Norvell runs deep. The two FaceTimed on Christmas so White could see the presents Santa brought Norvell’s 5-year-old daughter, Mila, whom White once helped babysit.

“That can speak enough to our connection and the relationship I’ve had with him and his family,” White said.

Related: Chubba Purdy, Tate Rodemaker end FSU’s prep quarterback drought

I can tell you that this is going to be a program that's built for playmakers.

Memphis running back Kenny Gainwell (19) is met and tackled by Navy Midshipmen safety Juan Hailey (13).
Memphis running back Kenny Gainwell (19) is met and tackled by Navy Midshipmen safety Juan Hailey (13). [ CORY ROYSTER | CSM via ZUMA Wire ]

The offensive foundation Norvell is preaching in Tallahassee and on the recruiting trail is the same one he used at Memphis and the same one that captivated Gainwell in high school.

“If you’re a playmaker,” Gainwell said, “he’s going to utilize you.”

This year Norvell utilized as Gainwell and Coxie to create the nation’s No. 8 scoring offense. Before that it was receiver Anthony Miller (whose 18 touchdown catches in 2017 were tied for No. 1 nationally) and running back Darrell Henderson (the country’s No. 2 rusher last season).

“He’s going to find a way to get you the ball,” Coxie said.

Norvell does that as well as anyone.

Related: Plant alumnus Judge Culpepper growing at Penn State before Cotton Bowl

When Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry studied Memphis for Saturday’s game, he noticed how well the Tigers move their playmakers around, like when Gainwell slides from running back to receiver. The offensive versatility makes it harder for defenses to figure out their appropriate personnel and easier for Memphis to create and exploit mismatches.

“They know how to get the ball to their playmakers,” Pry said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at. As an offense and structure and scheme, either you know how to do that or you don’t. … To me, these guys do that as well as anybody we’ve seen.”

If you want to see a team that has tremendous culture, tremendous passion, tremendous belief in each other, watch them on special teams.

Memphis wide receiver Antonio Gibson pumps up the crowd during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship  game against Cincinnati on Dec. 7.
Memphis wide receiver Antonio Gibson pumps up the crowd during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship game against Cincinnati on Dec. 7. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]

You can see it at Memphis in the statistics. Only Kansas State has returned more kickoffs for a touchdown this season than Memphis (three).

You can see it with how Norvell used his top talent.

“It’s not second string, third string, young guys (on special teams),” said receiver/returner Antonio Gibson, the AAC’s co-special teams player of the year. “We put the best players out there to perform.”

You can see it on the staff. Norvell’s first special teams coordinator, Joe Lorig, got called up and now has that role at Penn State. Norvell’s second one was a former Division I-A head coach (ex-Ball State coach Pete Lembo).

And you can see it on film. Penn State coach James Franklin spent more time talking about Memphis’ “strong culture on special teams” Thursday than he did on the Tigers’ offense or defense. That’s what happens when you start a conference championship with an onside kick, the way Memphis did three weeks ago against Cincinnati.

Related: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn still thinks about his FSU loss once a week

“I think that’s a little bit how they’re wired,” Franklin said.

And they’re wired that way because that’s how Norvell wanted it.

It's going to be a program that's built off true core family values of service, sacrifice and respect…

When Kevin Johns calls Norvell the best offensive mind he’s been around, it’s high praise; Johns has worked under Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. But the biggest thing Memphis’ offensive coordinator learned in his one year with Norvell has nothing to do with Xs and Os.

“How to build a culture,” Johns said. “Without question.”

Given the success Memphis had under Norvell’s predecessor (current Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente), the culture Norvell inherited was presumably strong. But Norvell took it to another level, culminating with the first New Year’s Six bowl game in program history.

For Johns, it’s all about the details. Norvell’s interview process took a handful of hour-long phone conversations. In one FaceTime chat, Norvell had Johns walk through a four-receiver passing concept on the white board in his home office —not to see what Johns knew but to understand how he would teach the reads and footwork to one his quarterbacks.

“He really wasn’t as concerned about the offensive knowledge as he was, do you fit what I’m building here?” Johns said.

What Norvell built, Johns said, was a program built on the same three core values Norvell wants as his bedrocks in Tallahassee. Tigers lower the hoods from their sweatshirts when they enter a building. Why?

“Because that’s how I serve other people,” Johns said. “I’m going to make a sacrifice of myself for the betterment of you.”

That all sounds nice. Then again, Norvell’s FSU predecessor, Willie Taggart, also believed off-field values translated into on-field results. He didn’t make it through two seasons.

You can question Norvell’s buzzwords, but you can’t question the 38-15 record he compiled in four seasons.

Related: College football bowl guide: A reason to care about all 40 games

“He helped set the standard and culture here at Memphis,” said Ryan Silverfield, Norvell’s successor and former offensive line coach.

The standard and culture on display Saturday in the Cotton Bowl are better than they’ve ever been at the program Norvell left behind. Now he has to do it again in Tallahassee.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes