Fresno State offensive line coach Cameron Norcross is easily one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, as long as you’re not disrupting the rhythm of his offensive line. Known for his tenacity and impressive results, Norcross is much more than a coach to the players; he’s a father figure and a best friend. His approach to coaching comes from a variety of different styles and big names in the sport, but he’s always tried to bring a family atmosphere to his offensive lines.
”I played for a guy by the name of Chris Klenakis, who’s at Louisville right now,” Norcross said. “I worked for Chris Ault for a long time. Those guys are very similar in the aspect of the tenacity with which the coach at. I’m constantly coaching guys. That’s one thing I learned from there is never let a play go by if you’re going to coach someone. You’re constantly coaching. You’re constantly going hard. Those guys were big. Coach Ault was somewhat of a fear motivation guy. But I learn from the other guys. It sounds funny, but there’s another guy that coached the defensive line us when I was at Nevada. He coached tight ends when he first got there. I learned a lot about coaching from him is just how to deal with players.
”You’ve gotta coach them hard but you’ve also got to be a mentor. Sometimes, you’ve gotta be a friend. You’ve got to be a father figure. So, they know when you’re coaching them hard, it’s because you care. That’s the thing that I tell guys, ‘if I’m hollering at you, if I’m coaching you hard, it’s because I love you. When I stop coaching you is when I don’t love you anymore.’ Fortunately, I’ve never had a guy like that. I always tell kids if they ever look back on their career and they say, ‘boy, I wish Coach would have coached me a little bit harder,’ I haven’t done my job for them. I never want to have a guy say, ‘I wish he would have pushed me harder. I could have been a better player.’ I get that from Chris Kelnakis, because that’s who I played for. I played for a guy named Jim House, who was kind of the good cop in that duo that would put his arm around you. I don’t have that guy, so I’ve got to kind of be both, which I really enjoy.”
It’s not always easy for Norcross to pull off both roles, but it’s something he enjoys doing. If you can get past the fact that Norcross looks like an Asgardian named Volstagg screaming at his fellow Warriors Three before taking Jotunheim, he’s actually a prankster and enjoys joking around with his guys. There’s a time for work and there’s a time for play. Norcross wants to make sure that his men know it’s all built toward winning and there is a purpose for all that they go through before, during, and after the season. While some might find that a difficult switch to turn on and off, Norcross feels like it’s second nature.
”It comes naturally because that’s who I am,” Norcross said. “It’s like having kids and I learned this early on in coaching. You can’t B.S. players, ‘cause they see right through it. If you’re not real and you’re not who you say you are, they’re going to see it. That’s who I am. Off the field, I have kind of a joking personality, a real loose personality. But, when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. You sit in our meeting sometimes and you know there’s going to be joking, but as soon as the joke stops, a switch gets flipped and we’re right back to work. That’s who I am. One thing I never want is I never want them to hate coming to practice and coming to meetings. I never want them to be uptight coming to meetings because then they don’t learn. If they say, ‘I had a bad practice yesterday and I’m nervous,’ that’s fine because they know they’re going to get coached. But if, ‘it’s miserable and all Coach does is yell,’ I’m not that guy. I want them to know it’s a two way street. I’m going to bust on you a little bit. You’re going to bust on me. I’m going to coach you hard and we’re going to have a great time. At the end of the day, the reason we all started playing football is because it was a game, it was fun, we love running around out there, and that’s the way it still should be. It’s a game. We should have a great time. Now, we’re going to work our tails off, but we’re going to have a great time winning and just being with the guys. That’s what it’s about.”
Winning is something that this program has done a lot of since Tim DeRuyter took the reins, but the vast majority of that winning has started up front. Fresno State’s offensive line were one of the tops in the nation last year at preventing sacks. Starting left tackle Austin Wentworth went two years without surrendering a sack under Norcross. Two years without a sack is two years without sack; it doesn’t matter what the level of competition is and Fresno State saw some tough competition in that time.
One of their toughest tasks last season was the Las Vegas Bowl against USC. Even though the Bulldogs lost the game rather handily, they did not surrender a single sack in that game and actually had the game’s only sack. The 2014 season will see the Bulldogs going up against USC once again and this time they won’t have Wentworth. The Bulldog offensive line will also see Utah and Nebraska in consecutive weeks after USC and both of those squads are known for their defensive play. The offensive line will be tested right out of the gate and it’s something that Norcross knows all too well. Norcross relishes the challenge and he knows his men are up for it.
”All three of those teams are known for their fronts,” Norcross said. “I think we’re going to be a different offensive line than last year, a little more physical at points. You look at our center position and you’ve got Bo Bonnheim replacing Lars Bramer. Lars Bramer wasn’t the most physical guy. He was very intelligent. He was in the right place. He could get other guys in the right place. That’s why he played a bunch. I think we’ll be a little more physical in our interior, but you replace a guy like Austin Wentworth and it’s a little tough. We’ll see. Alex Fifita had a really good spring and he’s had a really good summer so far. Physically, I’d like to think there aren’t any of my offensive lines that you ever go in and say, ‘these guys aren’t going to compete their tails off.’ We might get beat at times, but they’re going to compete every single snap, no matter who they’re playing. I was proud in the Las Vegas Bowl because that’s a good front seven that USC has.”
One of the biggest problems Fifita will see is Leonard Williams, USC’s stud defensive lineman. Williams dominated the Pac-12 last year and Norcross knew it would be a challenge to keep him off of Derek Carr. Norcross is quick to point out that the entire offensive line chipped in to keep the Trojans out of the backfield. He had to have faith in Wentworth’s ability to play against anybody USC threw up against him and they had a lot of blue chip athletes to choose from, something that made Norcross’ job a lot harder. But whether it is USC, San Diego State, or Alabama, Norcross wants the opposing team to know that the Bulldogs will not roll over for anyone. They’re going to get all they can handle and then some when they take on his offensive line, you can take that to the bank.
”We did have a plan,” Norcross said. “But the hard part about USC is it’s not like he’s the only guy on that defensive line that was a five star recruit. He might be getting the most accolades right now, but both those interior guys and both their outside guys were extremely talented. So, it’s hard to say, ‘okay, we’re going to double this guy all the time,’ but now you’re going to leave another five star guy that is a dynamic on an island. Right? So, one thing about Austin, he was motivated so he could play with those guys. It wasn’t that he was mad stepping against him all day long, but he had a big part in that. Our guys, you look at how physical they played, and Austin got a personal foul there toward the end of the game, which was a marginal call from me that I tell him to do every single time ‘cause he’s playing his tail off. The ball went away and he couldn’t see it and he put a guy on the ground. It’s just a mindset that we have. I tell guys all the time, ‘I don’t care if we have five all-conference guys, one all-conference guy, or no all-conference guys.’ I want people to think when they play us or when they see us, ‘that’s the best group of five that we’re going to play all year.’ You look at that game, and not to give up a sack against those guys and we threw the ball, what 45 times? I was proud of the way our guys competed. Maybe we weren’t going to knock them off the ball every time, but we’re going to compete our tail off."
Part 2 of the Tao of Coach Norcross will be up soon
Stay tuned to BulldogPlaybook.com for more updates on the 2014 Fresno State season.
Josh Webb is a Staff Writer for BulldogPlaybook. You can follow him on Twitter at @FightOnTwist.