Q&A with Mike Norvell

As Arizona State prepares for this weekend's Pac-12 South showdown against UCLA, DevilsDigest caught up with Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell following practice on Tuesday to discuss the team's recent offensive struggles, the play of Taylor Kelly and Marion Grice, and the Bruin defense.

DevilsDigest: Well, the matchup that everyone hoped to see is finally here as Arizona State travels to Pasadena this Saturday to take on UCLA with a chance to win its first ever Pac-12 South championship. What has the team's focus been like the past few days as it began preparing for this weekend's game?

Norvell: "This is the game we've been waiting for since last season. It's a big game. Every game that we've played up until this point we've approached like a championship week but this one kind of has the carrot at the end. We need to take care of business. Obviously we know what's in front of us. Our guys are excited. We had a great deal of focus in practice today. Guys had great energy. We're just going to continue to prepare and get ready to play."

DevilsDigest: Through the first eight games of the season, the Sun Devil offense had been averaging more than 40 points per game but has struggled in each of its past two outings, averaging just 21.5 points. Is the recent decline just a product of having faced a pair of defenses in Utah and Oregon State that had additional time to game plan against the offense or is there more to it?

Norvell: "Well, anytime you play someone who has a little extra time to prepare for you, you're probably going to get their best. That's the thing. We played some quality opponents but we probably haven't executed as well as we need to. You look at last week's game and I was really pleased with the way we ran the football but we just lacked the explosive plays. We had two on the first drive. We marched the ball down the field and scored but then we just missed a couple opportunities throughout the game. That's just something that we're really going to continue to work on.

"We have to have those explosive plays to keep everything rolling but I was proud of the guys with how we've been able to run the football. That was big. I think as long as we continue to progress and continue to get better, then we expect to back on track."

DevilsDigest: Do you have any concerns that that trend may continue this week on the road at UCLA or has the offensive execution looked better to you in practice?

Norvell: "No. We did some things that were really productive last week, we just lacked the big plays. To be able to run the football against a good defensive front like Oregon State, that was a positive. You look at the fourth quarter at Utah, we were able to do a lot of good things. It's just the last couple of games we haven't been able to put together the full four quarters. It comes down to consistency and making sure we're executing. That's something that we're working extremely hard to get on track; to make sure we get four quarters here on Saturday afternoon."

DevilsDigest: Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly has also underperformed the past two weeks, both with his passing and running. What have you seen from him and what does he need to improve upon to regain his early season form?

Norvell: "We just need to come out and play. Taylor, he's preparing himself for every game to come out and do that. We just haven't executed as well as we need to but I know Taylor is going to come out and play his best game. That's something that he approaches every day in practice with everything that we're doing. I have total confidence in him that he'll play well. We just need to go out there as a team and get it done."

DevilsDigest: One player who has really elevated his level of play as of late has been senior running back Marion Grice, who's averaging 126.5 rushing yards per game over the last four games. And with his two touchdown performance last Saturday against Oregon State, he became just the 15th Pac-10/12 player in the last 36 years to score at least 20 touchdowns in a season. Describe the kind of season Grice is having and how vital he is to the success of the Sun Devil offense.

Norvell: "The way we utilize our running backs here in this offense, it's a lot of fun. Marion brings a great deal of versatility with what he can do running the football along with catching it out of the backfield. I think he's a special football player. He's a guy where you look at the 20 touchdowns, he's a guy who knows how to get the ball in the end zone. I think there's been a lot of growth with our guys up front on the offensive line creating some seams for him but Marion has been able to make guys miss and break those tackles when need be, and that's always big.

"We expect Marion to continue to play his best ball here towards the end of the season and that's something that he showed last year as the season went on. He continued to grow and had his best outings, so I'm looking forward to a lot of the same things this year and him helping us win a lot of games."

DevilsDigest: Another player who has performed well as of late has been sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith, who had a career-high seven receptions last weekend and now has 24 catches for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the season. What sort of steps has he taken since the start of the season to progress into the recover he is now and what's his potential in this offense now that he appears to have re-gained the confidence he displayed throughout Spring and Fall camp?

Norvell: "It's kind of funny because coming into the season I kind of thought Rick would be the surprise player of the offense. I thought he was the most improved of anyone back in the spring and summer. He kind of hit a couple of bumps there early but he's continued to work hard. I think he's improved his practice habits and has continued to push himself with film study and doing the little things to make sure he's ready to play on Saturday and it's showing up. I'm really proud of him and have the utmost confidence in him and I'm looking forward to him finishing up the season on a high note."

DevilsDigest: Of course opposite Smith is Jaelen Strong, who began the season with 100 or more receiving yards in five of the team's first six games before suffering an ankle injury that slowed him down. Strong looked more like himself last week, totaling seven receptions for 106 yards against the Beavers. What have you seen from him as of late?

Norvell: "I think you got to see before the Utah game, he practiced maybe one full speed practice in three weeks. So, it's another example of how, if you practice well, you're going to perform well. He came out and practiced hard last week and was able to show up. He made some big plays in that game and had another good start today, so I'm looking forward to another good week of practice from him."

DevilsDigest: The offensive line has faced its share of formidable defensive units this season. What's your assessment of how they've fared through the first 10 games of the season?

Norvell: "I think they've done well. I told them after the game last week, playing Oregon State and having played them last year and watching them on film, they're a big, physical defensive line. They've got new guys who have some experience and guys who have proven themselves in the Pac-12 and I thought our guys really rose to the challenge. They were really able to open some running lanes for us. I think it's a mentality and Coach Thomsen has done a great job with those guys up front in helping develop that.

"We're continuing to grow and that's something we want to be known for; an offensive line that can come off the football and create some run seams and give our backs some room to make plays."

DevilsDigest: Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has quietly had a terrific season, connecting on 18-21 kicks, including his last 14, on his way to becoming a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award. Does having a kicker as consistent as Gonzalez affect your play-calling inside in the red zone and what kind of effect, if any, does it have on the offense overall, knowing that you have a guy that you can count on to get you those three points when you need them?

Norvell: "I think it's obviously crucial. I always tell the guys once we get in the red zone to make sure we're being smart with the football because we know we're going to get points. I think if you look at our red zone offense this year, it's up there ranking-wise as one of the tops in the nation and Pac-12 and Zane has a great deal to do with that. We're not forcing the football or doing things that might hurt us like last year, so that's definitely a good security blanket there.

"Our goal though is still to make sure we're scoring touchdowns and Zane is kicking extra points but knowing that he can go out there and knock it through when we need him to is big."

DevilsDigest: Defensively, UCLA is led by senior Anthony Barr and its talented core of linebackers but also features a very young secondary that has shown to be susceptible to the pass. What have you seen from the Bruin defense on film?

Norvell: "They're extremely athletic. Those guys are big up front. They have great size and are extremely athletic at the linebacker position. I think they've got probably one of the best linebacker cores in the country. And then they've got speed and guys who can make plays on the back end. That's one thing that keeps showing up on film; guys creating takeaways. It was big for them in the Washington game and has been big in just about every close game they've had this season.

"It's really come down to them winning the turnover battle each time so that's something that we know we've got to do a good job at and we definitely have our work cut out for us."


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