Mid-Season Q&A with Mike Norvell

With a bye this week prior to the Stanford contest, Arizona State has reached the unofficial midway point of its 2014 season right where many Sun Devil fans expected the team to be, although maybe without the change at quarterback and Hail Mary finish. ASU’s offensive coordinator offense’s overall play through the first five games, quarterback situation and more in this exclusive interview.

DevilsDigest: We’ve reached the unofficial midway point with of the season. The Arizona State offense is averaging 556.8 yards and 41.2 points per game, both of which currently rank third in the Pac-12. I’m sure you feel there’s always room to improve, but overall, how do you feel the offense has performed through the first five games of the season?

Mike Norvell: “Well obviously there have been a lot of bright moments. I’m excited about some of the explosiveness that we’re seeing with the big plays. That’s something that we talked to the offense about going into this year and we’ve really done a good job of putting that together.

“I’ve been really pleased with the five guys up front, especially with how they’ve been protecting the quarterback. I think they’ve really improved there and with limiting as many of the (tackles for a loss) - certainly less than they saw last year.

“We’ve had a lot of really bright moments running the football but we’ve got to get some things cleaned up there as we move forward to the second half of the season.”

DevilsDigest: Going into the season you probably didn’t expect to talk much about the play of junior quarterback Mike Bercovici but he’s stepped up admirably in place of the injured Taylor Kelly, passing for nearly a 1,000 yards in two starts against Pac-12 South division foes, including one game-winning “Jael Mary” touchdown. In your estimation, how has Bercovici fared in, not only his two starts, but all of his appearances throughout the first five games?

Norvell: “Mike has looked like I expected him to look. Obviously in that first game (against UCLA), I didn’t like the turnovers. Those really cost us. But moving forward into the next game against USC, he improved on that, had 100 percent ball security, and that’s what gave us a chance to win at the end.”

DevilsDigest: The offense has only averaged 84.5 rushing yards in the last two games - including just 31 against USC last weekend - without Kelly, after being one of the top rushing units in the nation through the first three games with him. Do you think the offense has become a little too one dimensional with Bercovici because of his style of play and particular skill-set, or is it more due to the level of competition, which obviously was much tougher than the first three opponents you guys faced?

Norvell: “Well, we’re going to take what the defense gives us. I do think that we need to do a better job of running the football but last week USC did a good job of taking away a lot of our run game so we were forced to put it on the perimeter a bit more. But like I said, we need to do a better job of running the football.

“Against UCLA, I thought there were some bright moments where we were able to run the football but when we got behind we were forced to drop back and throw more than we’d like to. But we’re just going to continue to take what the defense gives us and play our game.”

DevilsDigest: Today we saw Taylor Kelly without a walking boot for the first time since his injury against Colorado. Obviously his status for Stanford and beyond is still to be determined but what does it mean for this offense to have him back and ready to perform?

Norvell: “Taylor’s a guy who has started over 30 games here. He’s got a great deal of experience. He is the leader of this football team. Mike, I think you’ve seen, is another leader on this football team but we’ve got a tremendous quarterback situation.

“I’m excited about the experience that Mike has been able to get and what he has shown but Taylor is someone who is just a tremendous player and has been there every step of the way, so when we get him back he’ll do nothing but continue to help this football team and we’re looking forward to it.”

DevilsDigest: D.J. Foster started the season looking like one of the top running backs in the nation but has had some trouble getting things going as of late, at least on the ground. He’s still found a way to be effective in the passing game though with 21 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns. How would you assess Foster’s performance at this point?

Norvell: “D.J. is extremely versatile. Being a part of this offense, we don’t ever want one player being taken out of a game. We haven’t had the same success with him running the ball the last couple of games, but when you look at, I think he had five catches for 70-80 yards last week and close to 100 the week before, so we’re going to make sure he gets his opportunities to impact the game.

“That first touchdown that he had last Saturday in the fourth quarter was huge, so for him to still impact the game even when we weren’t running the ball quite as well was tremendous.”

DevilsDigest: How about the other three running backs; Deantre Lewis, Kalen Ballage, and Demario Richard? All three have kind of had their moments and seem to be a very dependable group behind Foster. How would you rate their progress so far?

Norvell: “I think those guys are showing some great flashes. Deantre might be the guy on the team who I’m the most excited about with how consistent he’s played. He’s done a lot of really great things and I’m proud of him.

“I’m excited for the two freshmen. They’re going to be tremendous players here at Arizona State. It’s just a growing process and learning from some of their mistakes, but I think we’ve got a great group of running backs. Those guys are going to continue to get better and we’re going to need every one of them as we move forward.”

DevilsDigest: Deantre Lewis is a guy who seems to have really stepped up these last two games on offense. He’s been hitting the running holes hard, without any fear, and I’ve got to imagine that’ something that pleases you to see that out of a senior like him… Norvell: “No question. He definitely trusts his tracks and you can see that in some of the explosiveness in his runs and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do for us back there the rest of the year.”

DevilsDigest: Moving over to the wide receivers, obviously we know what Jaelen Strong has been able to accomplish so far this season (41 catches, 614 yards, and five touchdowns), but who are some of the other guys that have really stood out to you?

Norvell:Cam Smith. He’s shown that he can be a big play receiver for us and has also been very consistent for us. He’s put together a couple of really nice games and then had the big play there against USC.

Gary Chambers is another guy who has made some really, really nice plays for us. He had two catches in the game the other night and has also shown he can be a consistent player for us. And then Ellis Jefferson is starting to show up and do some really nice things as well.

Really, all of our wide receivers have been good. Fred Gammage, Ronald Lewis, everyone. They’re all getting time and being productive for us while they’re out there.”

DevilsDigest: Obviously Jaelen’s catch is getting most of the attention this week but you’re right, so many guys stepped up, not just last Saturday but especially last Saturday and contributed to that incredible come-from-behind win. Smith had the touchdown. Chambers had the big catch to start the final drive. Even Jefferson had a diving grab to set up a score in the fourth quarter.

Norvell: “Obviously Jaelen made a tremendous play there in the end but there were a lot of plays in that football game that helped get us to that point. You never know when you’re opportunity is going to be called. The play that Gary made right before the Hail Mary was a huge play. If we don’t get that 25-26 yards, we’re not in position to even attempt that.

“Everyone’s just got to do their job and wait for their opportunity and when that opportunity comes, you’ve got to make the most of it.”

DevilsDigest: Kody Kohl is another guy who has really come on as of late (six catches for 63 yards in the last two games) and is looking like he’s going to be an impact player at tight end. What have you seen from him and how has he progressed from the start of camp to where we are today?

Norvell: “Kody’s really done a tremendous job. With De’Marieya (Nelson) playing a little both ways, Kody’s role has really begun to increase and when he’s had some opportunities, he’s made plays.

“He had that one drop in the game the other day but he has been so consistent in his effort and blocking. Just the way that he plays and his enthusiasm for the game, I think Kody Kohl is going to be a special player here.”

DevilsDigest: Coming into the season, many expected De’Marieya Nelson to be the heir apparent, so to speak, to Chris Coyle and become that main tight end target in the offense. Is his, I don’t want to say lack of production but for lack of a better term, lack of production at that position a case of him maybe being stretched thin on offense, defense, and special teams?

Norvell: “Well, it depends what you call production. When you look at the job he’s done blocking and doing things like that - catches aren’t the end all in production. He had a catch the other day when the read and the coverage dictated getting it to him. Like I said earlier, we’re going to take what the defense gives us and I’m really proud of how he’s played this year. He’s been great for us on offense and I think he’s going to have a great second half of the season.”

DevilsDigest: Lastly, the offense has been steady all season. They've only surrendered seven sacks so far which is the fewest in the conference. In your eyes, how has the offensive line performed, both in running the ball and in pass protection?

Norvell: “I think they’ve done a tremendous job. We’ve had games where we’re rushing for 200 yards a game, which is good and something those guys take great pride in. We know we sort of fell off that in the last couple games that we played but we’re going to continue to get better there.

“I’ve been really pleased with the continuity they’ve had up front. Pass protection is something that Coach Thomsen has spent a tremendous amount of time working with those guys on. We’re very athletic and looking to continue to get better up front.”

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