In the first two football-related sentences Mike Norvell ever spoke as Florida State’s head coach, he shared the philosophy that made him a rising star at Memphis and will determine whether he leads the Seminoles back to national prominence or ends up as another Willie Taggart.
“I can tell you that this is going to be a program that’s built for playmakers,” Norvell said in his introductory news conference. “This is going to be a program that is going to showcase all of the skills and talents of those young men…”
Whether this is going to be a program that succeeds immediately will hinge on what he does with the skills and talents of FSU’s most interesting position group: running back.
The ’Noles have been historically blessed in the backfield, going from three seasons with a five-star recruit and future second-round pick (Dalvin Cook) to three seasons with a different five-star recruit and future second-round pick (Cam Akers). Both left FSU among the top six rushers in program history.
Norvell did not inherit an Akers or a Cook. The team he took over didn’t even have a healthy scholarship running back available for the Sun Bowl. Thanks to the offseason addition of Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin, Norvell’s backs total 662 career rushing yards — or just over half of what Akers rushed for last season.
None of this means the Seminoles’ offense is doomed. But it does mean that Norvell has a challenge ahead. The good news for FSU fans is that Norvell has a track record of success at the position with whatever playmakers he had available.
As the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, Norvell got a 1,000-yard season out of a future receiver (D.J. Foster). In his last year at Memphis, he turned a former receiver (Antonio Gibson) into his second-leading rusher and a third-round pick.
Norvell’s five different 1,000-yard rushers over the last eight seasons have ranged from big and powerful (Memphis’ 6-foot-3, 227-pound Patrick Taylor) to small and speedy (the Tigers’ 5-foot-9 Darrell Henderson). He moves the pieces around — in the backfield, split out wide or on special teams — according to each player’s specific skillset.
“He’s going to put you everywhere,” Norvell’s most recent 1,000-yard rusher, Kenneth Gainwell, said before the Cotton Bowl. “He’s going to give you everything that you need as a playmaker.”
And the ’Noles think they have enough playmakers in the backfield to give Norvell what he needs to put up points, starting Sept. 12 against Georgia Tech.
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Corbin is the most experienced option after playing 14 games for the Aggies under ex-FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. He’s also the biggest (6-foot, 220 pounds) with enough versatility to rack up 1,025 all-purpose yards at A&M.
“I feel like (this offense) just plays into my abilities perfectly,” Corbin said.
Deonte Sheffield is the only returner, but that title is misleading.
The former walk-on’s only significant contribution came in the Sun Bowl, when injuries left him as FSU’s lone option. Although he was so nervous the night before his first start that he barely slept, he delivered a promising performance (18 rushes, 87 yards).
“I was just getting my feet wet, I feel like,” Sheffield said. “Now I’m just ready.”
He’ll have to be. Although FSU likes its running back room (including juco transfer La’Damian Webb and four-star freshman Lawrance Toafili from Pinellas Park High), no one else has notable major-college experience.
With an offensive line that remains a work in progress and the absence of an obvious bell cow like Cook or Akers, Norvell will have to do what he does best — get creative. The results through preseason camp are encouraging.
“I’m starting to see how this thing’s going to work,” Sheffield said. “Of course at the beginning it wasn’t all that. But now we’re starting to hit the runs and see what this offense can be.”
Georgia Tech at Florida State
3:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Doak Campbell Stadium