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Whiteboard Wednesday: Breaking down Norvell’s offense

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An explosive offense tailored to feature playmakers.

The Florida State offense used to be a source of pride for fans.

Not since the days of Jameis Winston and Rashad Greene (with a sprinkle of Dalvin Cook here and there) have Seminole fans witnessed a consistent, explosive offense. Recent seasons have found mixed success scheming around what has simply been one of the worst offensive lines in the country.

A lot of football coaches say they want to be multiple and want to fit their scheme to the players they have, but few are as committed to doing so as new head coach Mike Norvell. Whatever you want to call his offense — a Smashmouth-Spread or RPO Spread-I or just a Pro-Style Spread — it is a spread-to-run-based offense with an explosive pass game behind it built on freeing playmakers in space. Norvell’s influences include Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris, though of course Norvell has put his own touch on things.

If Norvell were to pick one central philosophy, it would be centered around matchups. That’s why Norvell’s offense seems to evolve yearly, as the offense’s matchups change as its personnel changes. His best skill players are running backs? Norvell will design ways to get them the ball in space in the run and pass game using a ton of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers). A talented quarterback? Be prepared to watch him throw it 35-plus times a game mostly out of 11 personnel. But for however much the offense changes to match the talent on hand, the offensive concepts largely remain the same.

Run Game

Some coaches will predominately be either zone or gap based, as specialization allows for more consistent execution. At Memphis Norvell ran (deep breath) inside zone, outside and wide zone, split-zone, and also gap blocking schemes like power and counter (so, so many counters) and also pin and pull and even the Gus Malzahn staple, the buck sweep. Many of these feature Norvell’s own unique wrinkles. Yet for all the volume and creativity in his run game, Memphis’ offense consistently executed at a high level.

Oh, and sometimes they’d do it out of the Wildcat.

The false-step counter gets the linebackers to bite inside while the playside tackle down blocks on the edge player, and the tight end, lined up as an H-back, is there to seal the edge and eventually the safety. The tight end plays a crucial role in this offense’s run game. Norvell will pull guards, tackles, and tight ends lined up both in-line and as an H-back in a dizzying amount of combinations from a multitude of formations, including split-back and pistol.

By the time the first half of the above 2018 game was over Memphis running back Darrell Henderson had over 200 yards rushing with three rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown and Memphis had 38 points. In other words, this offense is explosive.

These plays are from Memphis’ 2017 game against UCF.

Put it all together and it’s clear that Norvell looks to not only create extra gaps in the run game to out-flank the defense and spring his playmakers free, but also enjoys toying with a defense’s eye discipline. Like Gus Malzahn, as a drive progresses Norvell will call a counter-concept based off of the one he just ran, and then begins running counters on top of counters. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Norvell also often pairs his run concepts with bubble screens and other common RPO pass concepts, as you can see at the top of the play above.

Pass Game

The matchup philosophy extends to the passing game as well, as does his enjoyment of misdirection. The offense does a good job of scheming receivers open, and often gives its quarterback easy reads and throws.

While the backside receiver ultimately couldn’t make the catch here, this play perfectly encapsulates this offense. It’s Pistol with an H-back, and the fly sweep by the No. 1 receiver turns into an arc motion, the play-action fake ends with the running back cut blocking the un-blocked edge rusher, and the Flood concept, a Norvell favorite, has three receivers in the area to the flat, the back of the end zone, and on a shallow cross from the backside.

As noted above, RPOs are heavily featured, even if sometimes it’s just window dressing.

The quarterback in Norvell’s offense needs to be able to make quick decisions and get the ball out quickly and decisively with accuracy. The offense designs a lot of easy reads and throws, either off of RPO action or play-action. On the above play, the pull of the right guard causes the linebackers to hesitate, but it also triggers the safety.

Memphis’ execution and timing on the screen game was exceptional and like everything else under Norvell, well-coached and explosive.

Summarize

The challenge for Norvell this season is the same his predecessors faced — the offensive line. There’s no doubt Norvell’s offense, when properly executed, is explosive on the ground and through the air. It’s no coincidence Norvell was hired by a major Power 5 program like FSU. The run game is built on creating extra gaps and/or out-flanking the defense to gain chunks of yards. The run game is bridged by the RPO action, but the pass game is also explosive and built on designing ways to get the ball to designated playmakers in space. The hallmarks of Norvell’s offenses at Memphis were excellent timing and execution despite how multiple his offense was. Norvell’s tenure — and his offense — in Tallahassee will be defined by how quickly he can develop an offensive line that allows his offense to do what it does best.