Q&A with Mike Norvell

Last season ASU averaged 39.7 points per game in year two under Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell while also setting a school record by scoring 50 or more points in six contests. With starting QB Taylor Kelly back for another season, along with two of his favorite targets in Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster, the Sun Devils once again figure to be one of the top producing offensive teams in 2014.

With just 16 days until the start of the season, Devils Digest caught up with Norvell to discuss the offense’s effort through the first two weeks of Fall Camp, Foster’s transition to running back, and the play of many of the unit’s newcomers.

DevilsDigest: Prior to Media Day on Saturday, the team held its first scrimmage of Fall Camp inside Sun Devil Stadium. Since the scrimmage was closed to the media, tell us what you saw from the offense.

Mike Norvell: “I don’t think it was our best day. There were some things that we’ve got to continue to clean up like our execution and making sure we’ve got all 11 guys out there on the same page. It was good to get in the stadium but obviously we’ve still got to work on order to get better and execute better.”

DevilsDigest: Let’s start with a group of players you spend a considerable amount of time with each day, the quarterback quartet. Obviously you’ve got a pair of guys you’re very familiar with in Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici. How have each of these players developed as leaders on offense and what have you seen from each through the first week or so of camp? Norvell: “They’ve done a great job so far. They’ve all worked extremely hard but I think Taylor and Berco really have a great understanding of the position and what we’re wanting to do. I’m just pushing them to continue to get better fundamentally and to continue to make sure we’re on point with our reads and timing and getting the ball out. But really, they’ve done a god job.”

DevilsDigest: At the opposite end of that experience spectrum are freshmen Coltin Gerhart and Manny Wilkins. How have they looked so far at running the offense and what has stood out to you about each newcomer? Norvell: “They’re both competitors. They’re both really good people and smart quarterbacks. They want to learn and I’ve thrown a lot at them early. Their heads were spinning a little bit but they’re coming out here each and every day getting a little better each time and both made some plays in the scrimmage that I was really pleased to see.”

DevilsDigest: Wide receiver Jaelen Strong was a newcomer last season who lived up to the hype but says he’s 10x better now than he was a year ago today thanks in large part to full offseason of working out with Shawn Griswold and the strength and conditioning staff. What have you seen from the playmaker?

Norvell: “I think his intermediate routes are something that he has really improved on. He has a great sense of urgency with that. I think he’s really improved in every area but that’s what has really stuck out to me; understanding what it takes to be a really great route runner and taking great pride in that.”

DevilsDigest: Behind Strong is a stable of talented but inexperienced wide receivers, including Gary Chambers, Fred Gammage and Ellis Jefferson? How has this trio developed since the end of last season?

Norvell: “Wide receiver is an area that I’ve really been pleased with. Gary Chambers has really been one of the highlights of camp. He’s a guy who’s continued to work and get better. He’s been through the process of being a college freshman, a sophomore, a junior, and now he’s really getting the opportunity to go out there and make some plays and is making the most of it and even had a touchdown in the scrimmage the other day.

Cameron Smith is a guy who I think has a chance to be one of the more dynamic players that we have on this football team. He’s been injured a little bit but we got him back out there for a little bit during the scrimmage and then today we saw some flashes of a guy who can be a really special receiver in this league and the country, so I’m excited about him.

“And then you’ve got Ellis and Fred Gammage who are pushing to get better. Ronald Lewis is another guy who’s kind of been on the upward swing in his development. They’re all still pretty young but I like what I’m seeing from them.”

DevilsDigest: Then of course you added junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale and freshman Jalen Harvey to that group. How have the newcomers looked at picking hip the offense through the first two weeks of camp? Norvell: “Right now I think they’re thinking a little bit too much. They’re both very talented athletes, so we’ve just got to make sure we’re spending enough time getting them to understand the concepts and what they have to do so they don’t have to worry about thinking and can just get out there and make plays and play a little faster. But they’re both going to be really good players and I’m excited about their future.”

DevilsDigest: I was going to include Tyler Whiley in that group of newcomers at wide receiver but it looks like he too has been converted to defense. You’re the Deputy Head Coach…how does Coach Graham keep taking your players? First De’Marieya Nelson and now Tyler Whiley.

Norvell: “We’re excited about the versatile athletes that we have on this football team. A guy like De’Marieya, we’re going to make sure he’s get plenty of touches on the offensive side of the ball. Tyler Whiley is a guy who’s going to do a little bit of both. We’re just trying to find the best players to put on the field.”

DevilDigest: Keeping with tight ends, last week you called Kody Kohl the MVP on offense through the first handful of practices. What has the redshirt freshman done that’s stood out to you?

Norvell: “His understanding of the offense is pretty impressive but he’s also got a great deal of toughness. I’m really excited about all the things that he’s done and that he’s given us another three-back who can play along with De’Marieya and just that competition has been really good.”

DevilsDigest: Tight end used to be an area of concern but now appears to be a position of solid depth. Obviously Brendan Landman has been sidelined with an injury but you’ve still got a pair of talented tight ends in redshirt freshman Grant Martinez and junior college transfer Dan Vear. How have they looked?

Norvell: “They’re coming along well. Grant’s had some flashes throughout camp. I thought Dan Vear - he’s kind of the new guy who’s just learning what he’s doing - had probably his best day in the scrimmage the other day and followed that up with another great day today, so I think he’s starting to turn the corner for what he’s supposed to do. Brendan’s been out for a little bit but we’re going to get him back out here in the next couple of days and continue to see what he can do.”

DevilsDigest: D.J. Foster is another guy who’s been out recently, but with the departure of Marion Grice he’ll be counted upon to be the team’s starting running back in 2014. How important is his versatility to your offense? Norvell: “He’s such a complete football player. He’s a guy that catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield. He’s a tremendous downhill runner and he’s explosive. Every time he touches the ball he’s got a chance to take it to the house. And then just his understanding and overall mindset is what I’m really impressed with.”

DevilsDigest: You also return a pair of seniors in Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks who both have had to overcome their challenges to get back on the field and will be counted on to help Foster carry the load at running back this season. How has each player fared so far?

Norvell: “I think those guys have done a good job. They’ve been out here every single day busting their butt. We’re starting to see a little more consistency out of Deantre, which is important for us. He’s continuing to get better. With Kyle, we’re just developing him to be an all-purpose back who can do everything. Obviously he’s special in space.

“But a guy I’m really excited about and I was glad we got him back out here a little bit today is Demario Richard. I think he has a chance to be a special, special back because he’s very similar to D.J. in that he can flex out and go catch the ball as well as a receiver does. He can play in the backfield and is a very physical, tough kid. I’m really excited about him.”

DevilsDigest: I can’t talk about running backs without asking you about Kalen Ballage, who’s been one of the early standouts in camp. His physical stature aside, how has the freshman impressed you? Norvell: “He’s a tremendous athlete, especially with his size. The thing that impresses me the most is when you see his feet moving because he’s a very natural tailback and a guy who can do a lot of different things. Obviously he has a very physical nature, but he’s going to be special.”

DevilsDigest: Lastly, a lot has been said about the experience, strength, and physicality of this year’s offensive line. Do you feel like these variables allow you to play a little differently this season than in years past?

Norvell: “It’s big. We are replacing two starters, but just getting Christian (Westerman) and Nick (Kelly) in there and getting that cohesiveness with everyone working together is big. They’re a hungry group. They’re great teammates and obviously strong, passionate players. It’s fun to be able to be behind them and we’ve just got to continue to get that cohesiveness going because we’ve only got about 16 more days until we’ve got to be ready for showtime.”

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