Norvell's experience helping eager ASU wide receiver unit

First-year ASU assistant coach Jay Norvell has renewed the Sun Devils' commitment to fundamentals at wide receiver.

When Arizona State head coach Todd Graham was forced to reshuffle his coaching staff after the departure of former offensive coordinator and new Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, Graham had one name in mind who he targeted as Norvell's replacement.

It's well documented Graham wanted to hire a coach with the ability to develop quarterbacks who was also familiar with ASU's internal offensive terminology, and the obvious candidate who filled the requirements on Graham's check list was former Southern Miss coordinator Chip Lindsey.

Lindsey molded quarterbacks at the high school level and also worked under Graham protege Gus Malzahn at Auburn, so his experience matched the job qualifications for the ASU vacancy.

"I wanted a guy that was a developer of quarterbacks, so it was pretty clear cut who we were going to hire as the offensive coordinator," Graham said at Pac-12 media day in July.

Even though the decision became obvious for Graham, a second candidate who interviewed for the job made the hiring process more challenging.

Former Texas wide receivers coach Jay Norvell was in town for an interview at the same time as Lindsey, and Norvell's 25-plus year career demanded Graham's attention. At the same time, Norvell's experience also intrigued Lindsey, who met Norvell around the same time the pair was interviewing to fill ASU's offensive coordinator opening.

After Graham made Lindsey's hiring official, Norvell went back to Texas. However, the man who earned the job Norvell was seeking wasn't far behind.

"Jay (Norvell) made it so difficult for us because he was so well qualified and he's a really good coach," Graham said. "He wanted to be a part of our staff, so after I hired Chip (Lindsey), he and Jay I guess had met, I don't know if they had met at the hotel when we were interviewing them or what, but Chip said, let me fly to Austin and talk to Jay."

Ultimately, Lindsey was able to convince Norvell to leave his role as wide receivers coach after one year at Texas for the same title at ASU. The decision netted Graham an opportunity to bring two of his top offensive coordinator candidates together on the same staff, and it's one that brings inherent value for a mostly unproven ASU wide receiver corps.

"I wouldn't be here without Chip (Lindsey)," Norvell said. "Chip Lindsey and I have a lot in common. We spent a lot of time talking before I decided to come, and I wouldn't be here without Chip. I really have a lot of confidence in him, and his philosophy is very similar to when I was at Oklahoma with Sam Bradford, Landry Jones."

The symbiotic nature of Lindsey and Norvell's relationship could provide a key sticking point for ASU's quarterbacks and receivers this year, as the pair needs to rebuild a young Sun Devil offense.

Lindsey is presiding over what has developed into a two-man race for the starting quarterback job, while Norvell is overseeing a receiver unit returning just one player who caught more than 12 passes last season. That player, senior wideout Tim White happens to be one of the most dynamic weapons in the Pac-12, but nevertheless, Norvell knows the coaching staff has a lot cut out for it this fall.

"I really get along with Chip (Lindsey) well, we see a lot of things eye-to-eye," Norvell said. "He's a real bright guy. I just believe in the things we're doing, so we'll just head on from there."

Norvell's recipe

Norvell's coaching style is evident from the moment he steps on the field.

The former Iowa receiver is quick with coaching points, and sharp in his fundamental approach. Eye contact and hands-on instruction are key elements of any Norvell demonstration, and so too are a focus on even the most minute details. 

In a drill on Wednesday, Norvell asked receivers to run toward him, touch their palm to the turf at the sound of his whistle, and then run past him. The drill is predicated on maintaining balance while emphasizing ball security around would-be tacklers. 

After the first whistle blew, a Sun Devil player dropped his fingers to the turf, and proceeded on with the drill. Norvell took note, and promptly asked the player to redo the drill. After all, Norvell asked for the player's palm to hit the floor, and making contact with the fingers simply wasn't good enough. 

"He's (Norvell) a great coach, he's taught me a lot of things such as my stance, my hands, stuff I worked on in high school but not to this level," freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry said. "So stuff like that like little details are going to help me elevate my game to a new level."

The praise Harry offered Norvell came the same day ASU's wide receiver coach chastised the high-profile local recruit for arriving late to breakfast and not having tape on his wrists prior to practice, even though Harry wasn't due on the field for practice for at least another half hour. 

The devil is in the details for Norvell, and when ASU began full-contact drills after a few days in helmets to start fall camp, the details came to life in front of Graham. 

"If you said, coach, first four days, what's something that's really stuck out to you, it was the fundamental improvement at wide receiver," Graham said. "It's been phenomenal, he's (Norvell) done real well." 

Details and fundamentals are integral parts of Norvell's master recipe as a wide receivers coach, but it's the success of the players combining those pieces that will determine Norvell's effectiveness.

In White, ASU has an elusive speed threat capable of dominating as a slot receiver or lining up outside and blowing defenses away with his over-the-top speed. 

In Lindsey's offense last year, Southern Miss slot receiver Casey Martin caught 80 passes. If White remains healthy and ASU finds a quarterback who can deliver the ball on time, White's all-around skill set could make for a special season.

"We want to be good blockers, we want to be good route runners and we want to make great plays. Tim (White) is a great example of that," Norvell said. "He's a hard worker, he's a physical player, he's great on special teams, and so just about anything the team asks him to do, he's willing to do."

White isn't the lone upper classman hoping to command a larger role this season, as Ellis Jefferson is finally in line to start for the Sun Devils. 

At 6-foot-5 and 212 pounds, Jefferson has a tall, once-lanky frame that he's filled out over the past two seasons. The intricacies of the receiver position haven't come as a naturally to a player like Jefferson as they have for an athlete like White, but the arrival of Lindsey and Norvell motivated him to develop the finer points of his game.

After living with Mike Bercovici, D.J. Foster and Jordan Simone last season, Jefferson said he learned what type of dedication it takes to make an impact at the college level.

"I feel I can outrun anybody, but the quick game, running curls, running stops, running slants and all that stuff and making those plays, I feel like that's something I've worked on this summer and it's paying off," Jefferson said. "If you watched today's practice, I felt really comfortable running those certain routes."

Outside of Jefferson and White, the third receiver taking the lion's share of first team reps during fall camp is sophomore Jalen Harvey. Harvey was injured in Tuesday's practice and wore a walking boot in the injury line of Wednesday's session, but had been turning heads with his performance during camp.

Harvey's speed and production don't pop off the page, but the Northern California native could be one of the players who benefits most from the coaching turnover on the offensive side of the ball.

Harvey stands to improve because he's a mild embodiment of his receivers' coach as a player. Norvell coaches with a rugged sense of swagger, and Harvey tends to play with one. His coaches and teammates have praised his blocking, but above all, Norvell admires his consistency.

"He (Harvey) doesn't get a minute off, and he comes to work everyday," Norvell said. "You know what you're going to get out of him. That really as a coach, is what we expect is that you come everyday and you punch a clock and you work hard everyday."

Harvey's injury represents a setback for ASU's offense because he's a player who needs reps at this point in camp. With just four receptions to his career ledger, the Sun Devils are depending on a receiver with a minimal amount of in-game production to take on a significant role. 

When Harvey does return, though, it may not take him as long to acclimate as it would have had he suffered an injury last season. Harvey said he's watched himself grow up on the field during his ASU career, and he now owns an attacking mindset which helps him make the most of opportunities.

"Attacking every aspect from studying, to asking questions, from staying after watching film, catching the ball more with the wide receivers after practice, just attacking everything," Harvey said when asked about his development.

The next tier

Unlike ASU's running backs room, the Sun Devils' wide receivers can't take an 'NFL style' approach to their meeting room. There is no true hierarchy of proven vs. unproven, and upperclassmen vs. underclassmen existing on the perimeter of ASU's offense.

While White's spot is secure, Jefferson and Harvey will need to battle throughout camp and into the season to keep their playing time steady. 

The receiver figuring to push every player on the depth chart is redshirt junior Cameron Smith, who missed all of last season with an injury and is still working toward full health.

Smith snagged 41 receptions for 596 yards as a sophomore in 2014, and has the type of home run speed perhaps only White can challenge. 

Even if Smith can play at the beginning of the season, ASU will likely monitor him closely and could implement a play count, considering Norvell and Graham have said Smith may take some time to return to full health.

"Yeah, he's (Smith) got a ways to go," Norvell said. "He's still trying to work for consistency, and he's not quite there yet. But he's been practicing--and has a great attitude--and we'll just keep pushing him."

With Harvey out and Smith still waiting to test his limits, senior wide receiver and former walk-on Frederick Gammage aligned with the first team offense during portions of Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices open to the media. 

Among a room full of younger receivers, Gammage is practically a senior citizen, but the Brophy product knows the slot receiver position and has been hailed by Graham in the past for his workmanlike attitude.

In 2017, the next tier of Norvell's receiving corps has the potential to come to life.

Redshirt freshman Terrell Chatman has a huge frame and will undoubtedly benefit from Norvell's fundamental approach. True freshman Kyle Williams was a high school quarterback at Murrieta High School, but received attention with a one-handed catch in Camp Tontozona, and drew praise from Graham after Tuesday's practice when Williams received a chance with the second team offense. Then there's Harry, the local product who has the physical tools to contribute in his first season, but needs to conquer the mental aspect of the game.

Harry has worn a green non-contact jersey each of the last three practices, and Norvell said the freshman has a lot of work to do in understanding the scheme and tempo of ASU's offense.

"The speed (of the college game) is a lot faster, it's slowing down day by day, but it's definitely a lot faster than what I'm used to," Harry said.

Next season, the Sun Devils will also face the conundrum of replacing White, a team leader and shifty playmaker who doesn't go down easily. Thanks to Norvell, though, ASU already has a plan in place to alleviate White's loss.

This offseason, ASU accepted two wide receiver transfers, both of whom are familiar with Norvell. John Humphrey, a transfer from Oklahoma, was recruited by Norvell when he coached under Bob Stoops from 2011-2014. Ryan Newsome, a Texas transfer, played under Norvell last season in the coach's lone year with Charlie Strong's staff.

Their relationships with Norvell were strong enough to compel the pair to consider ASU as a transfer option, and the Sun Devils have welcomed both players with open arms this fall.

"Obviously relationships is what matters and their (Humphrey, Newsome) relationship with Coach Norvell is what brought them here," Graham said of the transfers. "They came here because of the ideals and the values that we're about."

For an assistant coach to gain the admiration and respect of his players is one thing, but to do it Norvell's fashion, with a firm, but helpful approach to details and discipline, is another.

In a college world where coaches bounce from school to school, it can be hard for a coach to develop lasting relationships. That's not the case with ASU's new assistant, who came to the Sun Devils through his relationships with an offensive coordinator he barely knew and a head coach who didn't offer him the job he applied for. 

"You can tell he (Norvell) has a lot of history, so when he came in here, I was very excited," said Jefferson, who of course knew Norvell from time the coach dedicated to recruiting him during his days at Oklahoma. "That's what he's given us, he's letting us play, and he's shown us film that he knows and he's shown us coverages and it's just making us all as a group better players."

News and notes

  • Junior running back Demario Richard hurt his right ankle during Tuesday's practice and was wearing a brace Wednesday, but was not in a brace on Thursday. Instead, Richard had his right ankle taped up and was walking through ASU's injury before heading over to Muscle Beach. 
  • Harry was in his maroon offensive jersey, but had a green non-contact jersey tucked into his pants. At the start of individual drills, Harry went over to Muscle Beach where he jogged at no more than half speed. He also had tape on his left ankle.
  • Junior college transfer Maurice Chandler has begun participating in non-contact drills, and said before the start of Thursday's practice that a shoulder injury has sidelined him for the time being.
  • Junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun was wearing a brace on his left arm that looked like a shoulder harness. Calhoun was participating during individual drills at full speed with contact.
  • Safeties Das Tautalatasi and James Johnson were both wearing green jerseys and working out at Muscle Beach Thursday. 
  • Redshirt freshman Brady White worked with the first team offense during an 11-on-air period while sophomore Manny Wilkins worked with the second team offense. Thursday marked the first time this week White was with the first team.
  • Junior Marcus Ball practiced with the safeties Thursday after beginning fall camp at Spur linebacker.
  • Junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes and graduate transfer Bryson Echols lined up with the first team defense during an ASU team period. Rhodes played field safety while Echols was lined up at field corner. 

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