When Mike Norvell accepted the Florida State job in December 2019, his expectations were clear.
“This program,” Norvell said during his introductory news conference, “is going back to the top.”
Four games into Year 2, Norvell’s program remains stuck at the bottom. The Seminoles enter Saturday’s home game against Syracuse 0-4 for the first time since 1974.
Though Norvell never set a timetable on getting FSU back “to where it’s supposed to be,” he did sketch a roadmap for how to get there in that first news conference. We revisited that speech to see what Norvell vowed he would do and what his program is actually doing through his 3-10 start:
“I can tell you that this is going to be a program that’s built for playmakers.”
Norvell said this three times on Day 1 and could tout his explosive offenses at Memphis as evidence. But the ‘Noles either don’t have enough playmakers or aren’t using them correctly (or both); they sit 56th nationally with 19 plays of 20-plus yards.
The receivers aren’t dynamic, which explains why FSU is tied for 100th with 6.5 yards per attempt. The Seminoles threw fourth-quarter interceptions in each of the last two games, because the opposing defensive back made a play FSU’s receiver did not.
FSU does have at least two playmakers at running back: Jashuan Corbin (whom Norvell added as a transfer from Texas A&M) and Tampa Bay Tech product Treshaun Ward. But they combined for only 21 carries in last week’s loss to Louisville. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said FSU was committed to the run but must find more creative ways to boost their involvement.
“We’ve got to get them the ball more,” Dillingham told reporters this week. “That’s just the bottom line.”
Defensively, FSU has only forced four turnovers (tied for 88th). Aside from end Jermaine Johnson (who’s tied for the national lead in sacks), the Seminoles don’t have many obvious game-wreckers on defense. One of the programs that calls itself DBU because of its history of producing elite defensive backs has only two interceptions and has allowed the fourth-most explosive pass plays in the Power Five.
Whether it’s talent, scheme or some combination, FSU simply isn’t making enough plays.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“It’s going to be a program that’s built off true core family values of service, sacrifice and respect ...”
These examples are easier to find. The team completed more than 600 hours of community service last year, adopted Tallahassee’s Riley Elementary School in 2020 and hosted free youth football camps across the state this offseason. Offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons (a Clearwater Central Catholic product) has used name, image and likeness legislation to start his own non-profit, Big Man Big Heart.
Norvell believes those values connect to football because, as he said in his first news conference and has repeated countless times since, “how you do anything in this world is going to be how you do everything.” Some of his former players and coaches at Memphis believe that, too. But if those values are being reflected on the field in Tallahassee, they’re not showing up in the standings.
“We are going to be one of the best special-teams football teams in the country because of the time we put into it, the commitment we have to it as a coaching staff and football team.”
The ‘Noles rank 45th nationally in special teams, according to SP+ analytics. They’ve missed two field goals (including a 37-yarder in overtime against Notre Dame) and two of their 11 extra points. FSU sits outside the top 50 in every major statistic, including punt returns (85th at 5.8 yards per return). No. 1 in that category? Memphis.
There have been highlights, of course. Alex Mastromanno booted a 65-yard punt — FSU’s longest since 2014 —that was downed at the 1 against Jacksonville State.
But on his first day, Norvell touted how a Memphis program that hadn’t scored on a kickoff return in two decades before his arrival did so 11 times in his four seasons there. He’s still looking for his first return touchdown at FSU.
“Close doesn’t really cut it when it comes to the return game,” special teams coordinator John Papuchis told reporters this week. “We’ve got to find a way to put it all together.”
“Our Seminole football team is going to play smart. … We’re going to have a football team that’s focused on discipline, on structure ...”
The ‘Noles look more structured than they did under Willie Taggart, but there are still issues. They’re tied for 112th in penalties, though they’re averaging fewer now (7.8) than they did last year (8.9) or under Taggart (9.2).
Dillingham said one misalignment cost FSU a touchdown last week. Norvell pointed to other mental mistakes, like fundamental miscues or looking in the wrong spot, that put the team in bad situations.
“Some of the negative plays that we had were just errors in judgment at times in trying to do too much,” Norvell said.
Every team makes some of those mental mistakes. But FSU, as Norvell said this week, hasn’t progressed enough offensively to overcome them.
“We will finish all that we do. We’re going to be a football team that understands how to respond to adversity. We’re also going to be a football team that understands how to respond to success, because success is coming.”
In losses to Georgia Tech, Pitt and Louisville last year, FSU was outscored in the second half by a combined 50-5. Even in the upset over North Carolina, FSU almost gave the game away by being outscored 21-0 over the final 20 minutes.
This year has been different. The ‘Noles forced overtime against Notre Dame after trailing by 18 in the fourth quarter, and they overcame a 31-7 deficit to Louisville in a respectable 31-23 loss. Norvell called not quitting the “minimum expectation,” and FSU has started to meet that low bar. That means they’ve learned how to respond to adversity.
As for the other part Norvell promised? We still don’t know. His team hasn’t had much success to respond to.
• • •