Norvell: Special teams ‘at the core of who we are’

By Tim Linafelt

Senior writer/

They might not grab the headlines that, say, a star quarterback or cornerback might. But Mike Norvell believes that a football team’s special teamers – its kickers, return specialists, and blocking and coverage units, make up the heart of its success.

It’s why he placed an oversized emphasis on special teams during his four years at Memphis and, in his mind, a big reason why the Tigers emerged as the class of the American Athletic Conference in 2019.

Norvell, named the new head coach at Florida State earlier two weeks ago, plans to replicate that special-teams success in Tallahassee.

Kermit Whitfield (right) was the last player to return a kick for a touchdown for the Seminoles in the 2014 BCS National Championship game.
Photo special to the Outlook

“I believe that is the backbone of your program,” Norvell said in his introductory press conference. “People can talk about offense and defense. But if you want to see a team that has tremendous culture, tremendous passion, tremendous belief in each other, watch them on special teams.”

Norvell’s Tigers backed up their coach’s big claims.

When he arrived at Memphis for the 2016 season, he was told that the Tigers hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 20 years.

“The first thing I told them, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do on ‘O,’ on ‘D,’” Norvell recalled, “‘but I guarantee we’re going to take a kick back to the house for a touchdown.’”

Norvell was a man of his word.

Led by ace return man Tony Pollard – now a promising rookie with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys – Memphis tied for the national lead with three kick-return touchdowns in 2016.

Pollard then led the country with four return scores a year later and added another as a junior in 2018. By the time he left Memphis, Pollard had tied an NCAA record with seven career kickoff-return touchdowns.

Memphis’ special teams were no one-trick Tony, either. The Tigers’ three return touchdowns in 2019 were again tied for the national lead, and three different players found pay-dirt.

Memphis’ 11 kickoff-return touchdowns during Norvell’s four seasons were the most in the country during that span, and the Tigers are one of just two programs (Troy is the other) to have at least one return touchdown in each of the last four years.

“Four years later, we’re the No. 1 (kick-return) team in the country with 11 returns for touchdowns because of buy-in, because of culture, because of toughness,” Norvell said. “Young men willing to give of themselves for the betterment of the team. That’s what we’re going to stand for.”

Norvell’s special-teams excellence extended far beyond the return game.

Riley Patterson, Memphis’ junior kicker, ranks ninth nationally with an 89.5 field goal percentage, and he made second-half kicks of 52 and 50 yards in last week’s AAC Championship Game. The 17th-ranked Tigers beat No. 20 Cincinnati by five points.

Memphis has also blocked 10 kicks or punts since 2016, ranked in the national top-six for kick-return yardage in three of the last four seasons and has been no worse than 28th in return yardage allowed during that span.

And, a few days after Norvell came to Tallahassee, Memphis’ Preston Holter was named the 2019 recipient of the Mortell Award, an informal honor presented each year to the nation’s top holder.

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Norvell’s special specialists at Memphis is this:

So impressed were they by the Tigers’ special teams, Penn State hired Norvell’s special teams coordinator, Joe Lorig, to that same post following the 2018 season.

A year later, Penn State ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s special teams efficiency metric. And Memphis, under the guidance of new coordinator Pete Lembo, ranked No. 2.

Lembo extensively described his approach to special teams in an interview with the American Football Coaches’ Association’s website:

“Another priority for us in practice each day is a specialist’s period. This is typically a five-minute block where a premium is put on the skill development of returners as well as the other role players on special teams units.

 “While the long snapper and punter work their operation and punt to returners, the backline wedge players on kickoff return may be fielding squib and pooch kicks from one of the kickers. The offensive coordinator may be training a backup holder. At the same time, all other special teams players will be focusing on a specific fundamental, such as open-field tackling. We all utilize offensive players on coverage units, but how often do they get a chance to form tackle someone in practice?

 “You have to find time to put them in that position. Again, as many coaches as possible are involved during this period. Any linemen who are not needed will be with their respective line coaches, getting some extra individual work. No one is left standing around!”

All of that should come as music to the ears of Florida State fans, who have seen the Seminoles make just 53.8 percent of their field-goal attempts this season.

And who haven’t seen their team return a kick for a touchdown since Kermit Whitfield did it in the 2014 BCS National Championship game.

If Norvell has his way, those things – and anything else that might fall under the special-teams umbrella – will be improving in a hurry.

“That’s going to be at the core of who we are,” he said. “We are going to be one of the best special-teams football teams in the country because of the time we put into it. The commitment we have to it as a coaching staff and football team.”