Q&A with Mike Norvell

As Arizona State prepares to host Stanford this Saturday in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game, DevilsDigest caught up with Sun Devil Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell to discuss the team's win over rival Arizona last weekend, the break-out performances from D.J. Foster and De'Marieya Nelson, and facing the Cardinal defense for the second time this season.

DevilsDigest: Following ASU's 58-21 win over Arizona last Saturday, Head Coach Todd Graham said he wasn't at all surprised with the team's offensive production despite playing without starting running back Marion Grice, who sat out with an injury. What is it about your offensive scheme or philosophy that allows this team to continue playing at such a high level even without arguably its biggest scoring weapon from the past two seasons?

Norvell: "We've built a system around the players that we have and we have some tremendous players. Obviously they've bought into the philosophy that we're preaching day in and day out and they're going out there and executing. We're very pleased with our guys and how they've gone out there and grown each week and we've seen a lot of growth from those five guys up front that allows us to play the way that we'd like."

DevilsDigest: D.J. Foster had a career day against the Wildcats while filling in for Grice in the backfield, rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns. What sort of steps did the sophomore take last week to prepare himself for that role considering he had been used mostly as a slot receiver through the first 11 games of the season?

Norvell: "D.J. did a great job of preparing himself in regards to the way that he practiced every rep last week. He knew there'd be a lot of eyes on him and he knew a lot of his teammate were counting on him and he had probably one of his best weeks of practice last week since I've been here. I was not shocked at all by the performance that he had. I knew by the way that he prepared that he was going to have a great game."

DevilsDigest: Another guy who had a breakout performance was junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson who rushed eight times for 35 yards and two touchdowns, caught one pass for 21 yards, and made three tackles on special teams, including one forced fumble. Describe the benefit it is to have a player as athletic and versatile as Nelson that can contribute the way he has on offense, special teams, and even defense this year in his first season in the system.

Norvell: "He's a tremendous football player. I've been telling everyone since he got here that he's a guy who can do a lot of different things and obviously you're seeing him continue to grow. A lot of the things he's done this season haven't shown up in the stat sheet as much as they did last week but he's just done a phenomenal job for us all year and I'm really proud of him and his growth and the time that he's been putting in to prepare himself to be able to do those sort of things."

DevilsDigest: "A lot of what the Sun Devils do offensively is predicated on the zone-read and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly's ability to read opposing defenses, which he seems to have become incredibly sharp at as the season has progressed, especially throughout the team's current seven game win streak. What have you seen from Kelly the past couple of weeks and describe his progress handling the zone-read offense?

Norvell: "He's done a great job and the big thing that I talk to Taylor about is just making sure he takes what the defense is giving him. That's something that takes every play. You can't get caught up with what the defense did the previous play. You have to have a renewed focus on every play and trust your reads and your eyes and he's done a good job at that."

DevilsDigest: Jaelen Strong had another big game last weekend with four catches for 142 yards and a 61 yard touchdown reception. He also surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the season (1,067 yards) in the progress. How much of a benefit is it to this offense to have a big, athletic receiver like Strong that can not only stretch the field vertically, but can also be trusted to make tough catches and pick up first downs in critical situations?

Norvell: "Having that type of weapon, especially with our offense and the guys that we have surrounding Jaelen, is something that really helps us. Again, it's like I tell Taylor, we take what the defense gives us and if they elect to give us the one-on-one with Jaelen, we have a guy that we're very confident that can go and make plays for us. He's done a tremendous job working, learning the system and I'm really excited to see how he continues to progress."

DevilsDigest: The Pac-12 All-Conference honors were announced yesterday and Arizona State, along with Stanford, had 17 players make the All-Conference team, which was tops in the Pac-12. Two Sun Devils, tight end Chris Coyle and offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg, made the All-Pac-12 First Team Offense. Describe the type of season that each player has had and the impact their leadership brings to the Arizona State offense.

Norvell: "Evan Finkenberg is just a tremendous young man. He's started in over 40 games here in his career and is the cornerstone of our offensive line. He's a tremendous leader and obviously very talented but he brings it every game. He's played at a high level all season and I'm really proud that he was recognized on that stage.

"And then you look at Chris Coyle and it's kind of funny because people have talked to me throughout the season because his numbers weren't quite where they were last year, but I think being selected First Team All-Conference is a great reflection of what he's been able to do in every area of his game at tight end. He's really improved as a blocker and has been productive when he's had the opportunities to have the ball thrown to him so I'm proud of him and I'm proud of both of those guys. They're two of my favorites and they definitely deserve the recognition."

DevilsDigest: This will be your second time this season facing Stanford and the Cardinal defense, which is led by Trent Murphy and their talented trio of linebackers. What have you seen from their defense on film since your first meeting and what type of match-ups do they create for this Arizona State offense?

Norvell: "I see a very seasoned group. They've got a bunch of guys who have played together for a long time. They're very talented, physical and athletic. They're probably one of the best defensive groups in the entire country so it's going to be a tremendous challenge.

"It's one where we went up there in the first game and we didn't play as well as we probably could have and they obviously had something to do with that but the great thing is to turn on that film and see the level of improvement that we've made. It's going to be a great game. Anytime you get into a championship game, you've got two great teams playing each other and our guys are definitely looking forward to the challenge."

DevilsDigest: You mentioned the first meeting with Stanford and obviously quite a few things went wrong in that first half for you guys, which resulted in the 29 point deficit at halftime. What were some of the main issues offensively that day and how much of what went wrong is correctable?

Norvell: "That was a time when we came out and really got behind the eight-ball and I think we kind of started to press a little bit. We tried to make up the deficit in one play rather than just going through and making our reads and letting our assignments at every possession work for themselves. It was something where we definitely didn't have our best game and we're looking forward to getting back out there and getting some redemption."

DevilsDigest: Unlike that first meeting, Arizona State will host Stanford this time around. It's no secret that the Cardinal are not quite the same team on the road as they are when playing at The Farm in Palo Alto. How much of a benefit is it to you guys to be able to host this game and have that home crowd advantage in such a high profile game?

Norvell: "Anytime you get to step on the field in your own stadium it's electric. Sun Devil Stadium is an unbelievable place to play. The atmosphere that we had there last Saturday night was incredible and we're looking forward to a very similar atmosphere this Saturday. Our kids, they love playing in front of the home crowd and we're really excited for the opportunity."


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