Tom Luginbill was on the sideline for the Memphis-Cincinnati rematch in the American Athletic Conference championship game. It was his first game observing Mike Norvell as a head coach in person but the longtime ESPN college football analyst has followed Norvell’s career through the years.
Luginbill talked with the Osceola about Norvell, what he did as a coach, what he showed on offense and defense, in recruiting and as a developer of talent. Note: this interview with the Osceola took place before the early signing period, so Luginbill’s comments are a big-picture look at Norvell’s recruiting and not just how FSU does with the 2020 class.
How many games of Mike’s have you done through the years and what are your impressions of what he has done at Memphis?
Luginbill: So I’ve done two of his games when he was the offensive coordinator at ASU. And then I did the championship game (on Dec. 7), but I’ve been around him in off-the-field settings as well. I think the one thing about him is that his offense is constantly evolving. If you go back and you look at, let’s just say Arizona State in 2011, and then you look at Memphis this past fall, there’s a lot of different wrinkles. There’s things they’re doing now, more two-back stuff. He’s just really evolved as a football coach and, you know, offensive coaches in this day and age they are all stealing stuff from each other, right? They see something on tape, they go clinic with each other in the offseason, ‘Hey, how are you making this work?’ ‘How are you making that work?’
And then what I think he did a really good job of, especially at a place like Memphis … you have access athletes to do what you want to do offensively. But I think the one thing I would say, and I said this when Willie Taggart hired Kendal Briles, is we can talk all the X’s and O’s we want. And we can talk about numbers and stats and all that. If you don’t have players up front, it won’t matter. It doesn’t matter. They won’t matter if you’re labeled a guru or, or anything else, some genius They have to recruit offensive linemen or do it in a hurry.
How do you view Norvell as a developer of talent?
Luginbill: So here’s why I’ve always felt strongly about Group of Five coaches. When they’re out on the recruiting trail, they ask you much more of a projection, than say, Clemson or Alabama or even Florida State, because you’re not getting that ready-made-for-college guy. You might get a player or two here or there that comes in and helps you as a freshman, but you’re not getting 10 of them in a class. So I think there’s a real art and a real talent to being able to identify a player and say, ‘Ok, get him in the weight room, redshirt him, bring them along in this manner. And in three years, we’re going to have an entirely different player.’
When you look at the defensive line at Memphis that’s what the defensive line at Memphis is made up. They got a bunch of dudes, man, and none of those guys were highly recruited. A few of them were juco guys that weren’t recruited out of high school, but they didn’t have to play with them right away. And I think it’s harder when you have to project because there’s so many more unknown variables. It’s one thing to turn on the tape and look at Cam Akers and say, ‘OK, Cam Akers is a difference maker.’ It’s hard to do it with the late bloomer and the guy that’s maybe not a play-right-away guy. When you hit on a lot of them guys that tells me that you have a talent for that area (evaluation), which I think is really important.
Norvell seems to have adaptability with his offense. Is that the sign of a good coach that he’s adaptable and able to squeeze out the maximum he can whether focusing on the pass or the run in a given year?
Luginbill: Absolutely. Because he’s not a system guy; he’s a player guy. And what I mean is if you ask Mike Norvell to describe what your offense is, he would probably tell you, ‘We’re a two-back, play-action team with spread window dressing.’
They’re going to run the RPO game heavily but they want to run the football. They had (running backs Darrell) Henderson and (Tony) Pollard. I think he’s done a remarkable job of doing that.
In the early going at FSU, he’s going to have to do an awful lot in terms of masking their deficiencies up front. Now whether that means tempo, whether that means a lot of backfield misdirection and eye candy, something to give them a schematic advantage until they can get more counted up front. That is what think will be his greatest offensive challenge early on.
He seemed to praise special teams when he was introduced here, talking about revitalizing the return game at Memphis. Some coaches talk about special teams and others are really dialed in on it. What has he done on special teams?
Luginbill: When they arrived at Memphis, I don’t think they’d had a kickoff return for a touchdown in a decade. And (by the time) he left they are in the 8-11 range of kickoff or punt returns for TDs. It was unbelievable. And all that is placing an emphasis on the kicking game … That sends a message to the roster that the kicking game is going to be treated no differently than the offense or defense around here. And if you don’t perform in that area, then you’re not going to have a chance to perform on the offensive or defensive side of the football.
They really like to attack on defense with a four-man front. What are your thoughts on what they may do defensively?
Luginbill: They are a team that wants to be disruptive. They are a team that’s going to let their kids play. They’re not going to be a read-and-react team. And when you’re in a place like Florida State, you got access to athletes that can do that stuff. And I think so much of the defensive side of the football, because it’s so hard to coach defense now with what is becoming such a space game. You’ve got to go out and recruit to what you’re capable of getting and then design the defense around it. Go to a place like Memphis, a place like Florida State, where you have access to players from that side of the ball, that you can turn loose, let them go. I think you’ll see a pretty aggressive mindset.
Norvell has had success as a recruiter at Arizona State and Memphis. But he only had two guys on his 2019 Memphis roster from Florida. Can his recruiting translate to Florida?
Luginbill: I do. I think a lot of it’s about putting together the right (coaches) around you. And the right guys at the right positions who have established long-standing relationships within the footprint, while he becomes more familiar with the footprint. I think you can do that through staffing. And that means taking your time at times on certain positions, where you’re going to really put an emphasis. Whether it’s a position coach or a coordinator, there’s always going to be some guys on your staff that you’re hiring because they are recruiters. You’re going to tell them how you want the on-field coaching done, but their job there is to get players.
You don’t have to just win in Florida (recruiting the state). You want to. And you want to try and put a fence around it and keep the best players in Tallahassee. But if for some reason you lose out on a guy here or there, you can get into those states that you border on and get an equal player. That’s the difference between the SEC and the ACC and the Pac-12 in recruiting. If you miss on a guy in California, it’s hard to find the same caliber guy in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. It’s not hard to find that guy in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.