Usually when a new coach takes over a program, his debut comes in the spring game, where fans can get their first glimpses of the new regime and its schemes.
And so it will be for Florida State’s second-year coach Mike Norvell on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Forget almost everything he and his Seminoles did last year amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Saturday’s Garnet and Gold exhibition will be our first true look at what to expect from Norvell in Tallahassee.
Norvell and his ‘Noles have not made excuses, but reasonable observers and rational fans know the enormous challenges they faced. Though the pandemic’s implications affected every program in the country, they hit new coaches and inexperienced teams the hardest. Norvell completed his on-field staff two and a half months before the coronavirus shutdown, and FSU fielded the youngest team in the country.
By only completing three spring practices a year ago, Norvell lost invaluable time to evaluate his roster, implement his systems and build his culture. Having two games called off the morning of kickoff didn’t help, either.
Does all that excuse a 3-6 season that was FSU’s worst in 45 years? No, not entirely. Especially not the lopsided losses to middling Louisville and Pitt teams.
It certainly doesn’t excuse noted off-field missteps, like Norvell exaggerating his race-related conversations with the team and sparking a boycott threat from standout Marvin Wilson.
But it does provide necessary context surrounding FSU moving forward. If you don’t want to give Norvell a mulligan for 2020, you should at least give the record and on-field product an asterisk. Last year wasn’t Year 1. It was Year 0.
Which means Year 1 begins this weekend. Now is the time you can start judging Norvell.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity to showcase our program, to showcase these young men,” Norvell said. “We talk about trying to work to build the identity of what this ’21 Florida State football team’s going to be. We get to show some of the positive steps that we’ve taken in that direction.”
The ‘Noles don’t have to look like a finished product ready to contend with a likely top-15 Notre Dame team on Sept. 5. But they need to show those positive steps — for fans, administrators and recruits who will be watching from the stands.
After starting four different quarterbacks last season, they need to look as if they have an answer for this fall, if not beyond. An offense Norvell says is built for playmakers needs to show big-play abilities that were too infrequent last fall. A pass rush that ranked among the worst in the nation needs to display signs of progress.
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Norvell is already seeing growth that won’t be as easy to see in a spring game, like an improvement in physicality and fundamentals. Though he was unhappy with the consistency of one practice earlier this week, he has generally been pleased with his team’s effort.
“When you look at a big-picture comparison to what we’ve done in the past to where we are now, it’s much improved,” Norvell said.
It better be, because last year, clearly, wasn’t good enough, and the coronavirus-shaped asterisk no longer applies. Norvell has been around long enough to make noticeable improvements, even though the pandemic and its football-related complications continue to linger. A handful of key transfers, including former UCF star McKenzie Milton, raise the talent level. Last year’s extenuating circumstances are gone.
Which makes Saturday more than Norvell’s first spring game in Tallahassee. It makes it our first real glimpse of the Mike Norvell era.
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