Column: Through recruiting, transfers Norvell shapes roster in his vision

This is Mike Norvell’s roster. He molded the 2021 team with impressive speed, too.

Coaches may not admit to media and fans the need to “flip the roster.” But when they discuss “buy in” there’s a correlation. Coaches want players who are committed to a new coach’s vision for the daily work needed to make the long-term vision a reality. While coaches would love to see all 85 scholarship players buy in, that’s not realistic. That’s where it becomes the reality to determine who has bought in and who is a better fit elsewhere.

This is not to disparage players who left Florida State through the NFL, graduation or the transfer portal. They were dealt a rough hand, many of them committing to a school, coach and program just a few years removed from ACC titles and a 2013 national title only to endure a change of head coach twice. Among that group are 2017 signees who remain in Tallahassee like Leonard Warner, Ontaria Wilson, Deonte Sheffield, Brady Scott, DeCalon Brooks and Grant Glennon. Outside of Warner and Wilson, most of the group includes role players although their value as upperclassmen and leaders shouldn’t go unrecognized.

Beyond the normal evolution of a roster, the transition has had growing pains. We probably should have realized it when Norvell arrived, understanding just how many players committed to Jimbo Fisher, played for a chunk of their career for Willie Taggart and now for Norvell. And Norvell had the challenge of facing a rebuilding of the roster, including one where approximately 20 players left via the transfer portal. Norvell faced that challenge by looking to the transfer portal to bring game experience but also mentors for what was a young roster in 2020.

“It fit the opportunity of what we were looking for,” Norvell said. “When you have the youngest team in college football, a lot of our guys have not seen or been able to have those leaders in the locker room that have (shown) what it takes, of the consistency that’s necessary. We’ve had some great players that have come through and we’ve got guys that have really had to figure things out through their own experience. But to be able to add to that competition, to be able to bring some of that veteran leadership in, some of the production that has just come through the door, I’m excited about. But geling those relationships, seeing those guys elevate each other, that’s what’s going to be key in our development as a program as well.”

The 2021 roster is Norvell’s, a group of 57 players that he and his coaching staff have chosen via high school, junior college or the transfer portal. Here’s a quick look at the makeup of the 2021 football team:

Norvell’s 2020 signees: A full class of 25

Norvell’s 2021 signees: A class of 16, not counting Destyn Hill.

Transfers from 2020: A group of six. Fabien Lovett, Jarrian Jones, Jashaun Corbin, Jordan Wilson, Meiko Dotson, Devontay Love-Taylor. Caleb Blake (from Colorado State) is thought to be a walk-on.

Transfers from 2021: A group of 10. McKenzie Milton, Jermaine Johnson, Marcus Cushnie, Dillan Gibbons, Brandon Moore, Jammie Robinson, Keir Thomas, D.J. Williams, Andrew Parchment, Jarques McClellion. Cortez Andrews (from Maryland) is thought to be a walk-on.

For the purposes of this discussion, we didn’t include a transfer who arrived in 2019 (like Jordan Travis or Jarrett Jackson from Louisville). Also, we didn’t include a transfer who arrived but is now in the portal like Deonte Williams. It should also be noted that FSU can go beyond 85 scholarships due to the COVID season in 2020, which gives programs the ability to have a player for a sixth season (Keir Thomas, Emmett Rice and Baveon Johnson are a few examples).

Going into the 2020 season, Norvell was able to lean on a few transfers (notably Love-Taylor and Corbin) in the offense’s starting lineup as well as a few on defense (notably Lovett and Jones). A few freshmen earned playing time, among them Robert Scott, Lawrance Toafili, Stephen Dix Jr., Sidney Williams and Alex Mastromanno as well as a junior college transfer La’Damian Webb. (Tate Rodemaker and Chubba Purdy also had starts as true freshmen.) Aside from this group, Norvell and the staff leaned on inherited players.

Now as we forecast for the 2021 season, Norvell added 10 transfers. It’s plausible FSU starts a transfer at each offensive position group — Milton (or Travis) at quarterback, Corbin at running back, Parchment at receiver, Wilson at tight end as well as Gibbons and Love-Taylor on the offensive line. It’s also plausible FSU starts two transfers defensive ends (Johnson and Thomas), as well as a tackle (Lovett) and who knows how many at defensive back (Robinson and Jones seem to be likely candidates as well as Moore, Dotson and McClellion).

We’re projecting, of course, but there’s the potential for six offensive starters who are transfers as well as five defensive starters who are transfers. This would be half of the starting 22 on offense and defense. They would bring in-game experience and could make the younger players alongside them even better. And even if a transfer isn’t starting, he is potentially in the two-deep depth chart and has the potential to be a leader in his position group.

Strength and conditioning coach Josh Storms has now had a full offseason of face-to-face time with players, newcomers and veterans alike. The coaching staff had a full spring to work with players, too. 

It’s also plausible that second-year players (those from Norvell’s 2020 signing class) could be impactful and be a big part of the depth chart in 2021. Among those are Robert Scott, Toafili, Dix Jr., Williams and Mastromanno. We could see early enrollees from the 2021 class earn early playing time, especially receivers Malik McClain and Joshua Burrell. There’s not a clear route to playing time for true freshmen on defense, although defensive back Kevin Knowles was impressive in the spring and there’s a good chance Patrick Payton, George Wilson, Byron Turner Jr. or Joshua Farmer contribute at end, outside linebacker or special teams.

Norvell is deeply reluctant to offer a depth chart, although when he does they are loaded with “or” designations that allow more players to be recognized as those who will start, back up or contribute on game days. It remains to be seen if Norvell will offer one in August or wait until the week of the Notre Dame game but, taking a look at how the roster has evolved since his arrival in December 2019, how he has molded the team through recruiting and the portal is quite the source of optimism.

Think about the challenges of 2020 and the 3-6 record. This 2021 schedule is one that we feel is challenging but there is a level of comfort in having a full spring and offseason program as well as the additional transfers, which allows a realist to feel a jump in the win total – even if it’s just doubling to six victories – is attainable in 2021.

“We’re looking to build our program through work, through relationships and making sure that we’re finding the right fits for Florida State because we will get this program back to where it is supposed to be,” Norvell said. “And when we get there, we’re going to stay there because of the foundational elements in those values of who we are and what we’re all about. And so I’m excited about the future. I’m excited about where we are but also what the steps are ahead.”