Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's departure to take the head coaching job at Memphis will have a signifiant ripple effect across the Arizona State football landscape. It will also force Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham to hire a new man for the position for the first time since he took the job in Tempe prior to the 2012 season. Here's our perspective on some of the elements of this story.
Why now for Norvell? Why Memphis?
With an annual salary of $900,000, Norvell is leaving his job as the highest paid offensive coordinator in the Pac-12 in order to become a FBS head coach at age 34. He turned down the head coaching job at Tulsa a year ago, instead deciding to return to coach a mature offense with a majority of starters being seniors including quarterback Mike Bercovici. ASU will have a new starting quarterback next year and a lot of newcomers across the entire offense, and this is after the team went 6-6 in 2015, its worst offensive output of Todd Graham's four seasons. ASU was in the Top-20 in scoring offense in each of the first three seasons under Graham and Norvell, but dropped to No. 30 in 2015.
At Tulsa, Norvell would have been in rebuild mode immediately, as the team his rock bottom last season with a 2-10 record. That's not the case at Memphis, where Justin Fuente left a much healthier program to take the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. Even though Norvell may have to replace star junior quarterback Paxton Lynch -- a potential NFL Draft entrant -- the Tigers are soaring and finished 9-3 in the regular season. Fuente turned the program around very quickly after the disaster that was Larry Porter's tenure at the school, a great sign about its potential.
Memphis is better located than Tulsa both in terms of recruiting, and for Norvell personally. A Texas native, Norvell played at Central Arkansas in college, which is 160 miles from Memphis. His wife Maria is originally from Arkansas. This is not only in their sweet spot personally, but Norvell's already recruiting the Houston and Louisiana areas for ASU and it's a natural transition to do so for Memphis. This is a great location for football recruiting, with many of the most talent-rich metro areas in the country within a half day's drive, and much of the South.
Norvell's going to be very well compensated -- likely making at least twice his ASU salary -- and he'll be in an American Athletic Conference, which is a breeding ground for coaching careers. Norvell probably wasn't going to get a quality job in a Power 5 conference any time soon and a fringe job in those conferences is more risky. In the West division of the American, his teams will be more athletic than the rest, with the exception of Houston, especially considering Tulane (3-9) and SMU (2-10) are currently down. Houston may have been the only better job in the American than Memphis for Norvell, and it hired Tom Herman prior to the 2015 season. This was one of the best jobs Norvell was going to get, and it's no wonder he didn't need to think about it much upon being offered the opportunity.
What will Todd Graham do to replace Norvell?
Though he has a clear preference to hire assistants with whom he's already worked, or at least coaches that others on his staff can vouch for, an exception to this has been at offensive coordinator. Graham had not worked with former Texas coach Major Applewhite before offering him the offensive coordinator job when Graham took his first head coaching position at Rice in 2006. Applewhite lasted just one year before moving on to the same job at Alabama, which he held for a year before going back to Texas for six years in a move that ultimately did more to hurt than help his career.
In 2007, when Graham took the head job at Tulsa he hired current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn to be his coordinator. At that point Malzahn had spent just one year as a college coach, as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Prior to that he rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas. Graham likes to say the Malzahn offense was fine tuned by sharpening its principles against his own defensive philosophy in a way that led to the ideology that ASU now adheres to on both sides of the football.
When Malzahn left to take the Auburn offensive coordinator job, Graham elevated another existing offensive assistant at Tulsa, Herb Hand, to be the offensive coordinator. That lasted just one season though, as Hand moved on to take the offensive line coaching position at Vanderbilt and Graham plucked current SMU head coach Chad Morris out of the high school ranks. Morris had led Lake Travis High School to consecutive 16-0 seasons and back-to-back state championships in Texas. He had no college experience in 16 years of coaching before that, but fit Graham's schematic philosophy and adapted to the terminology.
ASU isn't like Tulsa from a financial standpoint. Graham has a lot more money to work with, the money that Norvell was making. That means he has purchasing power in the marketplace. As a result, he's probably not going to grab a coach from the high school ranks again, but he's very willing to think outside of the box as long as he can find someone who has the same perspective on offense and is willing to be flexible about the terminology in a way that allows for some continuity with players. He may even be willing to give that up to some degree if he finds someone he's absolutely intrigued by.
If Graham hires in-house, the only two reasonable candidates are tight ends coach Chip Long and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen. Importantly, one or both could be candidates to become Norvell's offensive coordinator at Memphis. Norvell played under Thomsen at Central Arkansas. Long is close to Norvell and they're peers in terms of age. There's a good chance Long or Thomsen ends up as offensive coordinator at Memphis or Arizona State.
Graham and Norvell were at times at odds over play calling at ASU, with Graham regularly reiterating his run-play-action-pass ideology to media and Norvell being a bit more pass inclined. Thomsen is an offensive line coach and run game coordinator by nature, so he could be like a Herb Hand type transitional hire, perhaps a see-how-it-goes-for-a-year type of move. Long's roots are under the Petrino brothers, Bobby (head coach at Louisville) and Paul (head coach at Idaho), who are Pro Style Spread offensive coaches. Long's approach would likely also be in line with Graham's.
Could Graham go back to Applewhite, who is currently in his first season as offensive coordinator at Houston, which went 11-1 in the regular season? Maybe, but that's really hard to project as likely. Applewhite pre-dated the marriage of Graham and Malzahn, which seemed to cement his view of schematic approach and terminology. Applewhite might not work in that regard, but it's difficult to know.
Former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly or receiver Aaron Pflugrad? It's probably too early for them for be considered for such a position, though Kelly is likely to be on the staff as a graduate assistant and can work with quarterbacks.
How does Norvell's departure impact recruiting in the short and long term?
In the hours after news of Norvell's move to Memphis we reached out to most of ASU's 2016 commits, focusing especially on the offensive players. Most told us directly and/or posted on social media that they remained fully in the fold for the Sun Devils. The one player who is going to have to be watched closely is Houston quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, a four-star Scout300 recruit who hosted Norvell a day earlier in his family home.
Sterling-Cole told us that he was very solid to ASU following his in-home visit with Norvell. After Norvell's departure, Sterling-Cole is going to take additional time to discuss the news with his family before providing his thoughts.
More broadly, the loss of Norvell in recruiting is significant. He's one of the most prolific and high-energy recruiters on the staff and one of the youngest and most relatable in that respect for recruits. He also was the point man for ASU on most of the program's targets -- particularly on offense -- in the South, especially Houston and the Louisiana area. ASU's extended a lot of scholarship offers in that part of the country in recent years, and landed fair number of signees from the region.
Norvell isn't the only reason for this, certainly. ASU's defensive coaches, especially defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, have also been successful in the South. But even Graham has candidly said nobody has out-performed Norvell in terms of recruiting.
In addition to Norvell, ASU is already faced with finding a permanent replacement for former running backs coach Bo Graham, who resigned immediately prior to the start of the season. Bo Graham was the team's primary recruiter in the Dallas area. ASU may stick with Josh Martin for that role, after Martin was elevated from graduate assistant, but Martin worked more with offensive linemen still in position work in practice.
If Long or Norvell follows Norvell and becomes the offensive coordinator at Memphis, that could turn a moderate-to-significant recruiting impact into a severe one. Long has been involved with more commits than probably any other coach on the staff in the last few years, including a lot of ASU's highest profile prospects. He recruits from coast-to-coast, from Southern California to the eastern seaboard. Norvell and Long have been more involved with the local recruiting turnaround than perhaps anyone other than Graham himself. Thomsen has done an increasingly impressive job with recruiting offensive linemen to the program, especially so in light of his success locally in that regard of late.
Again, ASU has more money than it has had in past, and Graham has been very successful on the playing field and with his kids in the classroom. Graham has done a tremendous job in these areas and it puts ASU in a much better chance to overcome coaching losses. That's going to help the Sun Devils get high quality replacements, but it's not going to be easy or totally seamless.
One of the things that really helps though in this regard is that ASU's Assistant Athletic Director for Recruiting, Patrick Suddes, is now fully up to speed after two years in the program. At this point, he's deserving of a lot of credit for helping ASU land what is objectively its best class in history in 2015, and what's shaping up to be another well regarded class in 2016. Graham's decision to bring on Suddes was one of the best he's made, particularly in light of the possibility of losing multiple members of his offensive staff.
Suddes will lessen the blow of losing Norvell and potentially one or more others, but it's still going to be a challenge.
How big of a loss is Norvell for ASU?
It's more significant than a lot of ASU fans might believe or want to believe. Granted, ASU's offense underperformed expectations in 2015 as the team went 6-6, but let's define what that looks like: even in a disappointing season, ASU was No. 30 in scoring offense nationally with an average of 33.9 points. But exclude non-conference games and ASU averaged a third-best 35.8 points per game as it got healthier and more in rhythm later in the season. It also finished third in total offense in league-play, with 490.7 yards per game.
This was considered a down year, but much of that was due to the defense having its worst year under Graham. It was across-the-board issues that contributed to the team's 6-6 record.
In each of Norvell's first three seasons in Tempe his offenses finished in the Top-20 nationally in scoring, with ASU putting more points on the board and winning more games than any time in conference history, and any time in program history since the early 1970s under Frank Kush.
We disagreed with some of Norvell's play calling and decision making at times this season and felt he was slow to make some personnel adjustments, but more often than not, film review made clear what Norvell was trying to do and why, and it was very logical. Frankly, more logical than we even realized at times during the games. That's because he's a good football coach. Not infallible, and no play callers are. But very good.
Good enough to now be the youngest FBS head coach in the country at age 34.