Last January,Texas coach Charlie Strong was fearing for his hide after failing to prod his Longhorns to a winning record for a second straight season. Looking for a fresh start in 2016, Strong sent much of his coaching staff to pasture. Among the jobless herd was former play-caller and receivers coach Jay Norvell, who watched helplessly as his pass attack sputtered to a conference-worst 146 yards per game last season.
If Norvell wanted to make a case to stay in Austin as play-caller, he would have started by reminding Strong about what his offense accomplished on September 19, 2015 against California: Three of Norvell’s receivers enjoyed season-highs in catches and yardage. Daje Johnson clinched the first of only two 100-yard receiving games for any Longhorn all season before the end of the first quarter. Quarterback Jerrod Heard achieved career-high yardage and completion totals as he unloaded five 35+ yard passing plays -- the Longhorns averaged only one such play in all other games in 2015.
Nonetheless, Norvell caught a ride on the coaching carousel and dismounted in Tempe, Ariz., as Arizona State's new wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, who brings a 1-3 lifetime coaching record into this Saturday's tilt against the Golden Bears. In addition to last year’s defeat in Austin, Norvell’s hometown Wisconsin Badgers (where he coached offensive line, wide receivers and tight ends from 1989-94) dropped a home-and-home to Cal in 1989 and 1990. Norvell's lone victory came in 2007 at the Rose Bowl, when Norvell, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for unranked UCLA, knocked the No. 10 Golden Bears out of contention for a New Year's Eve Bowl game.
One of the perks of Norvell’s new job in the desert is the opportunity to mold the class of 2016’s No. 1 receiver prospect, N'Keal Harry. The departure of key playmakers Devin Lucien, D.J. Foster and Gary Chambers -- the group combined for 55% of all receiving yardage, 47% of all receptions, 43% of all receiving touchdowns for Arizona State in 2015 -- has given Harry the opportunity to not just play, but produce for the Sun Devils.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound true freshman currently leads Arizona State in yards, receptions, and touchdowns. After a 44-13 win over NAU in the season opener, Norvell observed, "He's a very confident, explosive, strong athlete. He had no hesitation with the ball in his hands… I’m excited about his progress.”
With three touchdowns in as many games, Harry has already demonstrated his fearsome versatility on offense: going 34 yards untouched out of the backfield against Northern Arizona, creating separation on a timed hitch route for a first-ever receiving touchdown against Texas Tech, and showing the UTSA Roadrunners that they’ll need to grab both his arms to keep him from scoring in the future.
Another key ingredient to Norvell’s passing game is sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins. Standing at 6-foot-3 and hovering around 200 pounds, the dual-threat quarterback from Novato, Calif., bears a foreboding resemblance to Norvell’s last signal-caller, Jerrod Heard. Sun Devils running back Kalen Ballage called Wilkins, who has rushed for an average of 63 yards per game, “tough as nails.” What Ballage forgot to mention was that Wilkins is also as crazy as a dehydrated water buffalo:
Jerrod Heard would never do anything that crazy.
Though play-calling against the Bears will not be Norvell’s responsibility this Saturday, ASU Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey, who was instrumental in Norvell’s hiring at ASU, told the Arizona Republic that “Jay was [his] number one recruit in the offseason.”
While Lindsey is in the driver’s seat this Saturday, he’d be shooting himself in the foot to keep Norvell from getting into a little bit of backseat driving.