TEMPE, Ariz. — Mike Norvell is surrounded by not-so-friendly fire.
The Arizona State offense is out of sync, the scoring is down, the receivers are ineffective, the tackles need help, D.J. Foster feels like an afterthought and the one-time hot commodity coordinator has seen his stock dropping daily.
Fans question his play-calling, media question his ability to adjust and even his head coach has called him out on several occasions.
When asked after a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M about the play-calling, coach Todd Graham questioned why the Devils kept running to the perimeter against A&M’s superlative defensive ends instead of playing to their strength up the middle.
“Personnel should drive what you’re doing, not scheme,” said Graham of Norvell’s insistence on playing to past strengths of the offense.
On his postgame radio show Saturday, Graham addressed ASU’s decision to line up in shotgun formation on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in a 42-14 loss to USC — a play that resulted in a back-breaking fumble return for a TD by the Trojans.
“I can tell you what I vote for: not being in the gun,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
When Norvell addressed the media after Wednesday’s practice at the Verde Dickey Dome, he looked ill at ease with the questions he knew were coming.
“People questioned me the last three years, too, so that’s going to happen and that’s just a part of this game,” he said.
When presented with analysis and advice from all of the outside experts, however, Norvell consistently took the high road after one light-hearted jab at the fans and media.
“If they want to call and put suggestions in, that’s fine,” he said, smiling. “For us, all we worry about is what goes on here and playing to the best of our abilities; obviously putting players in the best position to be successful.”
Norvell admitted he hasn’t done enough of that this season, and he took the fall for the Sun Devils’ lack of execution.
“Everything that’s on that field, I’m 100 percent responsible for so I have not done a good enough job and we’re working on continuing to improve that,” he said.
That was as far as Norvell was willing to go with the narrative, however. He bristled at the idea that quarterback Mike Bercovici is a bad fit for this offense and personnel, he insisted he had the personnel to turn things around and he cut short an answer on getting Foster more involved in the offense.
“When there are opportunities to throw to D.J., we like to throw to D.J. so that’s something we’re going to continue to do; continue to try to find ways to get him the football and make sure we have an opportunity for him to impact the game,” he said.
Coordinators are easy targets when things aren’t going smoothly. Some of the criticism is warranted; far more of it is uninformed disparagement from critics who possess only a fraction of the information necessary to judge what’s happening before their eyes.
Norvell may not like the criticism, but he understands that it comes with the job in a major college program. Poor performance is a target any critic can hit.
“I’m glad there are people who have big expectations for us and we have high expectations for ourselves. That’s why we’re not happy with how we’ve played,” he said. “But my confidence is not any different than when we started. It’s not shaken by this.”
It’s hard to envision the Sun Devils rallying from this early-season slide. There are games at UCLA and Utah coming, and Oregon visits Sun Devil Stadium on Oct. 29. It’s hard to imagine ASU rebounding as it did last season after a similarly shocking, Week 4 loss to UCLA.
But Norvell has already issued his mea culpa and he has promised to re-evaluate everything he is doing. He has no plans to throw in the towel or throw up his hands. That would be the only response that would warrant categorical criticism.
“I’m not happy with the way we played; I’m not happy with what we’ve done but I do like the growth in what I’m seeing,” he said. “It’s there. I really see it and I think it’s coming. We just have to go out and get it done.”
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