NCF Nation: Mike Norvell

Big 12 media days live: Day 2

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
The Big 12 media days continue on Tuesday in Dallas, as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and new Texas coach Charlie Strong each take the stage. Keep this page open throughout the day's proceedings as we bring you the latest from our reporters, who will cover all 10 teams at the event.

ASU investing in Mike Norvell, future

December, 19, 2013
Programs aren’t made in a year. They aren't made in two, or even three, years. It takes time. And most importantly, it takes continuity.

Of the many promises Todd Graham has made since coming to Arizona State, one of the signature commitments was that he was going to build the Sun Devils into a competitive program.

To do that, you need consistency. And he and the ASU decision makers took a major step forward toward that consistency on Wednesday when they promoted offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to deputy head coach.

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AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona State's promotion of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (left) to deputy head coach shows how committed it is to keeping Norvell and head coach Todd Graham (right) together.
It’s a nice title bump and a nice raise. But more importantly, it hitches Norvell’s wagon to Graham’s for at least another year and shows that ASU is serious about being a national player.

If you’re not familiar with Norvell, you should be. The rest of the college coaching community certainly is.

It was just last year that Norvell turned down an offer from new Auburn coach Gus Malzhan to be his offensive coordinator. The move would have nearly doubled Norvell’s salary. He politely declined.

Norvell is too humble to talk about the schools that have approached him. But according to a source close to the team, he’s been approached by Florida, Notre Dame and “pretty much every team in the country that needs an OC,” since the end of the regular season. He was also reportedly linked to the head coaching job at Arkansas State. Again, Norvell politely declined.

“Obviously his goal is to be a head football coach,” said Graham, speaking in San Diego Wednesday night at a media event for the National University Holiday Bowl. “That’s the only thing we want to lose him to is a head coaching job. He had some offers from some Division I schools to be a head coach which he declined and he stayed committed to us. We’re awfully thrilled to have him.”

But Norvell doesn’t look at it as passing up other opportunities. For him, it’s simply continuing on the path he started years ago with Graham.

“He’s someone I believe in,” Norvell said Wednesday night via phone. “I have a great deal of respect for him. Getting a chance to come to work every day for someone who has a tremendous vision and a way of treating our players and the highest expectations to be the best we can be is something I take a great deal of pride in. The university have made a tremendous commitment to me and I think we have something special happening in Tempe and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

At age 32, Norvell one of the hottest, most sought-after offensive minds in the country. And he’s fiercely loyal to Graham, whose coaching tree includes Malzhan, Chad Morris, Major Applewhite and Bill Blankenship, among others.

“I like growing my own,” Graham said. “The university has made a long-term commitment to me and, in turn, my staff. I’ve hired great people. I gave Mike his first job and he’s been with me ever since. He’s like family to me and he does a tremendous job. It’s nice to work at a university that is willing to reward that.”

When Graham, Norvell et. al announced before the 2012 season that Taylor Kelly was going to be their starting quarterback, a lot of eyebrows shot north. Public opinion was that physical specimen Michael Eubank should be the guy. But Graham said to wait and see what Kelly was capable of once Norvell got ahold of him. The end result is an offense that has totaled more than 12,000 yards and more than 1,000 points in two years with Norvell as offensive coordinator.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Sun Devils have averaged 39.7 points per game -- 11th nationally and second in the Pac-12 only to Oregon’s 48.2.

How big of a deal is this? The university president, Dr. Michael Crow, made a statement in the press release ASU sent out yesterday. School presidents don’t make comments about assistant coaches.

“I am committed to the long-term success of this program under the leadership of Todd Graham,” Crow said. “Rewarding the skills of a master teacher like Mike Norvell is a demonstration of that commitment. Coach Norvell’s performance as offensive coordinator has been nationally recognized, and this promotion reflects the remarkable track record he has established in the last two years at ASU.”

That sounds like something you’d hear from the head coach. It’s a not-so-subtle way of saying we want to keep Graham and his staff happy. And a happy staff is a productive staff.

“In two years, we’ve gotten on the doorstep of our goals,” Norvell said. “To be able to grow and get to where we want to, you need that continuity. It’s great that Coach Graham has that trust in me and the university has that trust in me to do my job and do it at a high level. It’s nice knowing I’ve got that support.”
PASADENA, Calif. -- There was a good chance history was going to repeat itself. You give UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley 3 minutes and 21 seconds -- at home -- to move his team 65 yards and negate a five-point deficit and more often than not you’d probably take those odds.

Faced with a similar situation last year, the ASU defense played on its heels and watched Hundley march the Bruins 60 yards in the final 1:33 to set upKa'imi Fairbairn’s game winner as time expired, giving UCLA a 45-43 victory in Tempe.

But that’s the thing about history. That’s all it is. This time around, the Sun Devils were determined not to make the same mistakes. So when Hundley got the ball with 3:21 left and his team trailing 38-33, ASU coach Todd Graham made a declaration to his defense: We’re going to bring it.

“We had some regrets last year down the stretch in that last minute of that game,” Graham said. “We talked about it as a team. I talked to the seniors ... we had some regrets last year that we defended instead of attacked. We sent it every play that last drive. Even on the last play, because we came to win.”

The end result was two sacks on Hundley, who could move his team only 11 yards on eight plays after penalties and the losses stalled the come-from-behind effort. The 38-33 margin held, and the Sun Devils celebrated as the Pac-12 South Division champs.

[+] EnlargeRichard Smith
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsArizona State built a large first-half lead and then hung on to win the Pac-12 South.
“Everything felt different this time around,” ASU safety Alden Darby said. “We’re a different team. The mindset was different. We know we have a championship defense. There was a different vibe this year on the sideline and on the field.”

Those two sacks on the final drive were part of a nine-sack effort from the Sun Devils, who pressured Hundley and UCLA’s young offensive line. Hundley rushed for 66 yards, but when you factor in the sacks, he netted only 5.

“The main concern was tackling Hundley,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “He’s very good with the ball. He reminds me of Vince Young from when I was in the Big 12. The main thing was getting him down. We knew they were hurting on the offensive line. I knew we could get there. We just had to make sure we got him on the ground.”

Through the first 30 minutes, a game-winning drive seemed like a long shot for the Bruins. Behind an efficient and calculated performance from ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils built a 35-13 halftime lead. Kelly was elusive on the ground, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, and accurate through the air, completing 20 of 27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. Rushing scores from D.J. Foster and Michael Eubank, along with a 19-yard touchdown from Kelly to Jaelen Strong and a pick-six from Carl Bradford gave the Sun Devils a 22-point advantage at the break.

But as UCLA tends to do, it exploded in the second half, outscoring the Sun Devils 20-3 behind a pair of touchdown runs from Myles Jack and Paul Perkins and a 27-yard touchdown strike from Hundley to Shaq Evans. That set the stage for some last-minute drama that ultimately ended with the Sun Devils' defense making the plays it failed to make last season.

“We got ourselves into a hole in the first half and were not able to recover,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They fought tooth and nail for that thing, and it was just a little too much to overcome. The loss is bitterly disappointing.”

What Mora laments most was his team’s inability to control Kelly on the ground. ASU’s quarterback rushed for 84 yards in the first half alone.

“He kept plays alive, he frustrated us, we couldn’t find the ball,” Mora said. “We got caught out of position on some things. That’s what was frustrating me -- not being able to handle the quarterback defensively.”

ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said getting Kelly involved in the running game was by design. They wanted to force the Bruins into making decisions on zone reads. From there, Kelly was making all the right calls.

“We were able to present some different looks to make sure he’d get a good pull-read and he made some great reads,” Norvell said. “... When you’ve got the defending Pac-12 South champs the last two years, you’re coming into their place, you knew it was going to be a battle. I was really proud of our guys and the way they played. That really showed the character of our team.”

The Sun Devils will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford, which claimed the North by virtue of Arizona’s win over Oregon. The only question is whether it’s in Tempe or Palo Alto. If Arizona State tops rival Arizona next week, it will host the Cardinal. If the Wildcats win, the title game will be at Stanford for the second straight year.

ASU RB Grice full of 'wow' moments

October, 31, 2013
Marion Grice has provided the Arizona State faithful with plenty of “wow” moments, but few that actually make him say “wow” about himself.

Two Saturdays ago in a 53-24 win over Washington, the ASU running back had a self-actualized “wow” moment when he elevated to haul in a Taylor Kelly pass in the end zone with one hand. Though his entire body was already out of bounds, he was able to rotate and contort and land with his left elbow in bounds. Initially called out of bounds, the play was reviewed and ruled a score.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
AP Photo/Matt YorkMarion Grice has a nose for the end zone, as he has already scored 18 touchdowns this season for Arizona State.
That was touchdown No. 16 of the season, and the first of three he would have in the game to give him a nation-leading 18 touchdowns on the season.

“I told myself, ‘You’re out of bounds. Get up and try again,’” Grice said. “When they replayed it and said I was in bounds, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I knew some part had to touch in bounds. When I was in the air, I was like, ‘Well, I already know my whole body is out of bounds, let’s see if I can get my elbow down first.’ I didn’t actually think I could do that.”

While Grice doesn’t wow himself often, he’s been wowing his teammates and the Arizona State coaching staff for quite some time. When Grice gets inside the 20, something happens. Call it a nose for the end zone. Call it a switch flipping in his head. Call it good old-fashioned sticktoitiveness. Grice simply scores. And at the end of the day, that’s what this game is about.

“That’s exactly the conversation I had two weeks ago with coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Norvell,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “What is it about him? We can’t put our finger on it. He has a knack for sliding, slipping; he had that unbelievable catch; he’s got a knack for it. We ask each other, ‘Who does he remind you of?’ And he doesn’t remind us of anybody. He’s really unique. And I think that’s what makes him a special back. He wants to get in that end zone. He never takes a direct hit. He slides. He’s a glider and obviously tremendously talented.”

Besides leading the nation in scoring with 18 touchdowns, here are a few other notable Grice numbers to consider, courtesy of the good folks at ASU:

  • Grice has scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games.
  • He led the nation’s running backs with eight receiving touchdowns last year and is on pace again to do it this year. He leads all backs with six receiving touchdowns.
  • Grice was one of just four FBS players in the past decade to score 12 touchdowns before October and one of two players to do it in just four games (Temple’s Bernard Pierce was the other in 2011, Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree had 14 in five games in 2007 and MSU’s Javon Ringer had 12 in five games in 2008).
  • Grice is averaging a touchdown every eight touches, second in the league among players with 90 touches behind Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks.
  • And perhaps the two most ridiculous stats: Grice has more touchdowns this season (18) than he does negative plays for his career (16); and in 301 career touches (214 rushes, 74 receptions and 13 returns) Grice has yet to fumble.
What Grice doesn’t have are the gaudy rushing numbers that many feel are needed to be considered an “elite” running back. He’s only averaging 79 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry, he’s tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12) despite having fewer carries than the three other backs with 12 touchdowns (Bishop Sankey, Tyler Gaffney, Byron Marshall).

With his scoring production, you’d think he’d be getting more Heisman hype. Or, really any Heisman hype for that matter. But hybrids are rarely recognized for the simple fact that they aren’t easily categorized. Oh well, says Grice.

“That’s fine,” Grice said. “It doesn’t frustrate me. I do things other running backs can’t do. That’s a positive. I might not touch the ball 40 or 50 times like some other guys. But I know if you give me the opportunity to make a play, I’m going to make it for you.”

The Sun Devils (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) head to Pullman, Wash., to face the Cougars (4-4, 2-3) tonight ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and likely on the BCS bubble. It’s the third time this season the Sun Devils have been ranked. And each time they entered the polls, they would exit a week later. That’s a trend Grice and Co. want to reverse tonight.

“We’re in the second part of the season and now it’s time to finish,” Grice said. “We had an opportunity to build on being a ranked team and we lost both of those games. We learned from those games and now we’re ready to finish the season strong.”

With five games remaining, more “wow” moments are expected.

Q&A: Arizona State's D.J. Foster

August, 30, 2013
Arizona State has to wait an extra week before taking the field, and its players are itching to get out there and start proving that all of the preseason hype surrounding the team is justified. Running back D.J. Foster, who shares the backfield with running back Marion Grice, chatted with the Pac-12 blog about his hopes for 2013 and what it’s like being a tandem with Grice.

You had your first offseason in a college training program. What’s better about D.J. Foster heading into this year?

D.J. Foster: My body has matured a lot. I put on a lot of weight -- healthy weight -- that I needed to be a Division I running back. I’m in a lot better shape and I feel like a more durable back.

What do you still need to improve on before the first game?

DF: Body-wise, I can always improve everything. My quickness, my speed, my strength. That’s always an ongoing process. As a football player, my pass blocking. That’s another challenge I’m trying to step up this year and be more reliable this year and get better at that.

What’s the biggest thing you learned as a freshman that you can apply this season?

DF: It’s a long season. There are a lot of ups and downs. As a freshman, I’m not sure you really understand that. There are so many ups and downs in a 13- or 14-game season. You need to be mature and learn how to maintain your body.

Expectations are a lot higher for you guys this year. Do you feel like the team is prepared for the mental grind it’s going to face?

DF: I think we are. I think that the offseason training we put in, our mindset is good. We feel like we are the strongest team out there. We have put in the work. We know our potential and we know what we can accomplish. It’s all about keeping that mindset and keeping it throughout the whole year.

Is it tough not playing in Week 1?

DF: It is and it isn’t. It has its pros and cons. You get a little extra rest and watch the first games. But you’re eager and you have to time to wait. We’ve been practicing against ourselves and right now we’re pretty hungry to play another opponent.

You never want to look past your opponent (FCS Sacramento State), but at the same time, after that game you have four straight against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame with no break in between. That might be the toughest four-game stretch in college football this year. Have you guys started thinking about that all, even a little bit?

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Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsArizona State running back D.J. Foster predicts the Sun Devils will be Rose Bowl champions.
DF: We think about it every day. We can’t look past Sac. State, but we know those first five games are going to be a grind. That’s what we’ve been working toward for Day 1. We’re putting in the extra work conditioning. We call it “echo” when we go into the next drill without taking a break. We’ve been preparing ourselves because we know it’s going to be a grind.

What’s the best part of being a tandem along with Marion Grice?

DF: It’s great. I love watching him run. We have two different styles and we really play off of each other. I know what kind of player he is and I’m working hard to reach my potential. I’m honored to be in the backfield with him and be called one of the best duos in the nation.

And yet running backs by nature want the ball. They want to be 25- or 30-carries a game guys. How do you suppress that urge to want the ball every down?

DF: It’s a team sport at the end of the day. The way our offense is, I’m blessed to be able to move around in the slot and get receiving yards as well. It’s a great offense to be a part of. As long as the ball is moving and we’re excelling, there are no problems with how many times I touch the ball.

Now that you and Taylor Kelly, and Chris Coyle and the offensive line have all had a year in this system under coach Mike Norvell, what can we expect from you guys in Year 2?

DF: Everything, but better. I see a lot more consistency and maturity. We made a lot of mistakes last year. One thing we’ve been preaching is turnovers. That’s something we have to eliminate if we want to go as far as we want to go. Less mistakes.

Finish this sentence for me: In 2013, Arizona State will be …

DF: In 2013, Arizona State will be Rose Bowl champions.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

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Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
Todd Graham had a plan. He'd go to a coaching clinic, give his spiel and shake a few hands. Afterwards the recruiting would start. Afterwards he'd extend an invitation. Anyone who wants to go get a beer and talk football, follow me.

"That's when you'd find out who is passionate," said Graham, now in his second season as ASU's head coach. "If you want to have a beer, I'll have a beer with you. But be ready to talk some football. The guys that came out afterwards and wanted to learn and wanted to talk, those are the guys I that I knew had a passion for this game. Those are the guys I kept my eyes on."

And it's pretty clear that Graham has an eye for coaching talent. In just his eighth year as a head coach, he's given rise to an impressive coaching tree that includes several of college football's most well-known coaches and coordinators.

For example:

  • Gus Malzahn: The head coach at Auburn (formerly the head coach at Arkansas State) won a national championship with the Tigers as their offensive coordinator. Before that, he was Graham's coordinator at Tulsa.
  • Chad Morris: The offensive coordinator at Clemson had zero college experience before Graham hired him.
  • Bill Blankenship: The head coach at Tulsa had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Tulsa to be a receivers coach.
  • Keith Patterson: West Virginia's defensive coordinator was a graduate assistant for one year but worked with Graham at Allen High School in Texas before Graham brought him to Tulsa.
  • David Beaty: Texas A&M's receivers coach had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Rice.
  • Major Applewhite: The Texas co-offensive coordinator had one season as a quarterbacks coach at Syracuse when Graham hired him at Rice.
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Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTodd Graham has unearthed several successful assistants who had little to no prior college experience.
There's a trend here. And it should be obvious.

"Teachers," Graham said. "All of them are outstanding teachers who just needed the opportunity. Chad turned me down three times because he didn't think he could do it. Now he's the highest paid offensive coordinator in the country after four years. I got hammered in the media when I hired Chad Morris. They said 'How can you hire someone without any college experience.' Same with Bill. Same with David at Rice."

And Graham already has his eye on the next up-and-comer. It's his current offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell, who reportedly passed on the same job at Auburn to stay with Graham. It's not every day a guy turns down a coordinator gig in the SEC. Norvell has his reasons.

"He's someone you want to believe in," Norvell said of working for Graham. "He's been a great mentor and someone I've learned a ton from. When you look at his coaching tree, the guys he's helped in such a short amount of time is really impressive."

Graham said Norvell might be the brightest of the bunch, and it's going to be a struggle to keep him around.

That's the fun thing about coaching trees. You could actually trace Graham's origins to the coach of ASU's biggest rival -- Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. It was RichRod who gave Graham his first Division I college coaching job at West Virginia. Other trees have multiple branches. Stanford's David Shaw comes from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree -- but his roots are inspired by Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Sonny Dykes comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree. Others have bounced around and taken bits and pieces from various coaches.

But one thing they all have in common is that someone gave them their first opportunity. And so far Graham has been pretty good at spotting guys ready for their opportunity.

"I've been fortunate to identify some great teachers," he said. "I get credit when things go well and I take heat when things go wrong. But the most important thing is those nine guys I hire. I spend more time with those nine guys. I want the best pay and the best contracts for them. We want to be conference champions and Rose Bowl champions and national champions. To do that, we have to keep a staff together and that's a challenge."

In his first year at ASU, the fruits of his teachings were obvious. The Sun Devils went 8-5 and many have them as the favorites to win the Pac-12 South this season. One particular point of pride for Graham was ASU's reduction in penalties. They went from being one of the most penalized teams in the country to the least penalized team in the league.

"People think it's because I'm a hardcore disciplinarian," Graham said. "It's because we are teachers. We taught them the rules."

It is obviously a transition to go from being a high school coach to a college coach. The schemes are more complex. There are different social issues with the players -- many of whom are away from home for the first time. But if you can teach, Graham will give you a look.

"We're adaptive," he said. "When you coach in high school you have to learn how to teach fundamentals and develop fundamentals. But you have to be adaptive to the skills and talents of the players that you have year in and year out. That's what's served me and those guys well."
The question concerns Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly: What's next for him after a strong starting debut as a sophomore? Both head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell make the same observation in separate interviews.

"In the eight games we won last year, Taylor didn't throw any interceptions," Graham said.

"And in the five games we lost," Norvell said, "he threw at least one."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTaylor Kelly "commands our team," coach Todd Graham said. "He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust."
It's an interesting factoid -- all nine interceptions in five losses -- one you can imagine has been brought up to Kelly by both a few times. You also could read too much into it. Other than his first-ever road start against a mediocre-to-bad Missouri team, those losses came against good teams.

But it also aligns with what Kelly needs to do this fall to take the proverbial next step: Take charge and be consistently excellent so Arizona State becomes better than those other good teams.

Graham calls it mastering the offense. Kelly knows it's about stepping up at critical moments.

"When things hit the fan, that's when I've got to play my best," Kelly said. "When things would start to hit the fan last year, I would kind of panic and start forcing things. Or if we were down, I'd feel I had to make a play. After watching film, I realize I need to take the easy route and take what the defense gives me."

Be smart. Command the huddle. Distribute the ball to the playmakers. Step up and deliver in big moments. That's what veteran quarterbacks do, and that's what will get Kelly and the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl.

It's reasonable to project. Kelly blew away preseason expectations last year, eclipsing 3,000 yards passing while ranking second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw 29 touchdown passes and rushed for 516 yards and a score. Even incremental improvement should make him an all-conference candidate, though the same can be said for a number of outstanding Pac-12 quarterbacks.

It's strange to recall that a year ago the idea of such a projection would have seemed ridiculous. Kelly finished 2012 spring practice third in the Sun Devils quarterback competition behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank. More than that, there was some talk of reducing his reps and making it a two-man race heading into fall camp.

"We came this close to making it a two-man race because of my belief that it's hard to rep three guys," Graham said. "That would have eliminated Taylor Kelly. I'll be honest. He was third team coming out of spring, and that was where he should have been. He improved that much over the summer."

The same can be said for the 2012 season. Kelly showed resilience by bouncing back after bad games. The poor showing at Missouri? He threw 11 touchdown passes in the next three games with no picks. A four-game losing streak killing the momentum of a previously promising season? Kelly threw eight touchdown passes with no picks as the Sun Devils finished with three consecutive victories, including a comeback victory in the Territorial Cup.

"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."

There is a question, and it affects Kelly directly: Receiver.

Kelly has a good tight end/H-back in Chris Coyle. Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster are skilled pass-catchers. But there's a dearth of talent and experience at wideout.

Said Kelly, "It's been a work in progress."

It's an issue whose solution lies in the unknown: Arizona State needs at least two, perhaps three, incoming receivers to show up ready to play immediately. The Sun Devils signed five receivers, topped by the touted Jaelen Strong (Said Graham, "As dynamic a receiver as I've seen on film."), and they will be immediately thrown into the rotation.

While Graham also frets about special teams, the Sun Devils' potential advance to a 10-win sort of team depends on giving Kelly some A-list targets who will keep an opposing defense honest.

Further, there won't be much of a preseason, getting-to-know-you process. Games 2-4 go: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.

Yet this team is fully capable of handling a front-loaded schedule and climbing the national rankings. And that feeling starts with Kelly.

"He commands our team. He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust," Graham said. "We have a quarterback who is a championship-level quarterback. That gives you a chance."
There is a simple answer to the question, why?

The answer? For a pair of shoes.

But the answer doesn't make sense. There's no logic to someone being gunned down for a pair of sneakers. And for Arizona State running back Marion Grice, the answer simply isn't good enough. If he could confront the three men arrested and charged with his brother's murder, that's the question he would ask.


[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsMarion Grice rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, days after his brother was murdered.
"Why did it have to come down to the fact you had to shoot a gun," said Grice, speaking for the first time about his brother's murder. "I don't understand. What was the reason? What did they get out of it? I just don't understand any of it. I want to know why."

Grice became a national name days before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl for all the wrong reasons. Already in the midst of a dynamic first season with the Sun Devils -- where he earned all-league honorable mention -- Grice's world was fractured on the morning of Dec. 21 when he received a phone call from his sister, Melanashia. It was right before he was heading into an offensive meeting.

Their brother, Joshua Wood, had sustained a gunshot wound during a robbery attempt. The suspects wanted the Nike Air Jordans Wood had just purchased for $185. According to reports, Wood was in the passenger seat of a car when three men approached them. Wood was shot and the driver ran. But Wood managed to get behind the wheel and get away before crashing into the side of a house in the Houston suburb.

Melanashia was at the scene, but police and paramedics couldn't move in because they feared the car had severed a gas line. All Grice could do was listen as his sister described the grievous events of that morning.

"She told me he wasn't moving," Grice recalled. "I was talking to her and she was crying. I was trying to calm her down. It was effecting me too. But I had to be strong for her."

Wood was transported to the hospital where he died, and Grice told head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell he had to leave. For how long, he wasn't sure.

"It was a tough meeting," Norvell recalled. "It was an extremely tough time for Marion -- like it would be for anyone who has been through that kind of tragedy. Anytime you go through something like that, you have to latch on to those relationships and realize how special people really are. We stayed in constant contact the entire time he was gone."

Grice opted to return and play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It was an emotionally charged decision, though not a difficult one. After spending a week with his family, he joined his teammates already in San Francisco.

"I've never missed a game," Grice said. "I really believe my brother wouldn't want me to miss any games. I was playing for him and my dad (who died when Grice was a sophomore in high school). Both of them were on my mind."

Grice went on to win Offensive MVP of the bowl game, rushing 14 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns in ASU's 62-28 win over Navy. It was as heart-warming/wrenching a scene as Norvell had ever been around.

"It was a really special day to see him go out there and play and be there on the sideline when he had that first touchdown," Norvell recalled. "To be able to hug him and see his face and know his team was behind him and honor his brother. It was special. Nobody should ever have to endure what Marion has gone through, but I know he has a great sense for how much he's cared for by this football family."

One year in the books and Grice has transformed from touted JC transfer to elite Pac-12 playmaker. Despite splitting time with Cameron Marshall and D.J. Foster, he had more touchdowns per touch (7.5) than De'Anthony Thomas (8.5), Marqise Lee (9.3), Kenjon Barner (12.9) and Ka'Deem Carey (14.1). He rushed for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns and also caught 41 balls for 425 yards and eight touchdowns.

In Arizona State's running back-friendly scheme, Grice has flourished. Norvell uses him in screens, split out in the slot and as a straight-ahead runner. With Marshall graduating, there will be more opportunities for Grice to shine.

"He's a complete back," Norvell said. "And in my opinion, I think he's the most dynamic back in the country."

Looking ahead to 2013, Grice is determined not to let the tragedy of last December define him as a person or player. Though he admits he might never truly move on. He stays home a lot more than he used to. He calls his mother, Melonice, daily. He's got some guys on the team he can pull aside and get deep with when he has to, but he's more guarded than he used to be.

"I don't take life for granted," Grice said.

The Sun Devils are poised in 2013 to make a big move in the Pac-12 South and challenge for a spot in the Rose Bowl. Grice is a big reason for that. He's quiet by nature. But he knows that when he does speak, he commands the respect of his teammates.

He's also bulked up in his first true off-season with the Sun Devils after joining the team mid-summer last year. Many have already penciled him in as an all-conference performer and his name has even been dropped a couple of times as a Heisman darkhorse.

"I want to do what I can to lead my team to a championship," Grice said. "I'm stepping up and being a leader. Nothing in this life is given to you. You have to work for it and not take anything for granted because it can all be taken away quickly."
With recruiting behind us and most schools in the swing of spring drills (the last of the bunch kick off next week), the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.


Buy or sell Arizona State winning the South?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,165)

This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.

Buy or sell Arizona State winning the South?

Kevin Gemmell

Buy: I haven't decided yet if I'm picking the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12 South. We still have a few months before the media poll. But it's hard for me to come up with reasons why they shouldn't be No. 1 in the division.

I like the offense -- not just the players -- but the ingenuity behind it. I like the multiple ways Mike Norvell uses the running backs in the screen game and split out in the slot. The mismatches are abundant when you get Marion Grice and D.J. Foster in space.

I like the fact that they are digging deeper into the playbook this spring because they have a returning quarterback in Taylor Kelly who was so efficient in his first year as a starter and looks to be even better in his second year. I like that they have depth at quarterback and they went out and got some big wide receivers who should be able to get separation.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTaylor Kelly is entering his second season as the starting quarterback for Arizona State.
And, of course, it's hard not to like the defense -- headlined by the returning Pac-12 defensive player of the year and Morris Trophy winner in Will Sutton. And let's not forget about Carl Bradford, who was fourth in the league in sacks last season with 11.5 and second only to Sutton in tackles for a loss per game. With so much attention being given to Sutton this season, look for Bradford's numbers to skyrocket.

The question mark for the Sun Devils is the schedule. A four-game stretch early on that includes Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame is really going to test what this team is made of. If they can come out of that at 4-0, 3-1 or even 2-2, it will be a huge confidence boost for this team moving into the second half of the season -- when they close out with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona.

The South figures to be an exciting race right up until the end of the season. But when you look at what ASU has in its arsenal, it's hard not to like them.

Ted Miller

Buy: Kevin and I already talked about how the second guy in this can't just go, "Ditto." But Kevin correctly touched a lot of bases.

I go back and forth between the Sun Devils and UCLA as the Pac-12 South Division front-runner. Both look like top-25 teams.

Both are solid at quarterback and have an All-American coming back to lead strong defensive fronts. Both give some pause in the secondary. Both have some questions at receiver. The Sun Devils are much better at running back, the Bruins a little better at linebacker. Both offensive lines seem solid. Heck, both must replace good punters.

So there's a lot to like about Arizona State heading into 2013. The biggest question is the schedule. It's entirely possible the Sun Devils could be a whole lot better next fall than 2012, but only win eight or so regular-season games. Yet if things fall into place, this also could be a 10-win team.

The key is the nonconference schedule, but perhaps not as you think. A visit from Wisconsin and game with Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium -- read: a road game -- are sandwiched around a trip to Stanford and home date with USC. Those conference games are infinitely more important to Arizona State than the nonconference games, because the name of the game here is winning the South Division. Ergo: At least splitting the conference dates is the priority compared to beating the Badgers and Fighting Irish.

I realize that's not genius analysis, and that the Sun Devils will prepare to win each and every week. The point is this: Win or lose versus Wisconsin and Notre Dame, Arizona State needs to be focused and mentally tough. The results against the Badgers and Fighting Irish -- celebration or sadness -- can't distract from what immediately follows.

Say the Sun Devils start 4-0 or 3-1. They can't get full of themselves. Just as a 1-3 start won't doom the season, particularly if that one win comes against South Division rival USC.

So my "buy" here is about more than returning talent. It posits a belief in coach Todd Graham, his staff and the new, more disciplined culture in the locker room. It's a statement of belief that the Sun Devils will hit mid-October still focused on the immediate task at hand instead of thinking big picture, one way or the other, which would be a kiss of death to a promising season.
Todd Graham can throw all kinds of diagrams and playbooks and chalk talks at his players until their heads spin. But if they don't believe in what the Sun Devils are trying to do, then it doesn't really matter how much of the playbook they do or don't retain.

So more important than the Xs and Os, Graham is stressing the dos and don'ts of being in his program and the challenges that come from making a culture change. And after a few months on the job, he's pleased to report that, in his mind, Arizona State is headed in the right direction.

"The thing I'm most proud of is how they responded to such a drastic change," said Graham. "In terms of accountability -- we expect them to go to class every day, we check every class, we drug test every kid in the program. We're trying to install this structure and discipline and I'm proud of the way this team has responded to that and embraced that. The guys have bought in."

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew ASU coach Todd Graham said his team has responded well to his direction this spring.
Before the start of the spring session, Arizona State's players were little more than images on film to Graham. He could read bios, track workouts and see what they did last season. But that didn't really give him a sense of what he had to work with as he and his staff are trying to install new systems on both sides of the ball. Now that he's seen them do some live work, he's starting to get a sense of the team's identity.

"Those first six practices, you know how it is when you are trying to change things up, you just want to beat your head against a wall," Graham said. "But on the seventh practice, I got the impression that they were finally getting it."

Graham said he's been impressed with the offensive line play -- which he thought was going to be a question mark heading into the spring. He was complimentary of returning starters Evan Finkenberg and Andrew Sampson, but also noted that Brice Schwab and Jamil Douglas "have really been impressive."

"I think the strength of our defense is the defensive line so those guys [on the offensive line] are playing against some pretty good competition," Graham said. "Every day those guys get a little better. That has been a real bright spot."

Graham didn't add much to what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said last week about the quarterback competition, but he did single out the springs of running back Cameron Marshall, safety Alden Darby, cornerback Osahon Irabor, defensive tackle Corey Adams and wide receivers Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross.

"Miles has really started to master his craft," Graham said. "He's been very disciplined in his route running. Marshall is at the front of a stable that I think is going to be very good.

"The reality is that we still have a long way to go. But I've got confidence because I think this team is coming together because of each one of them buying in and working as a team. We are making great progress in developing that trust that it takes to be a family and a team and a team that wins. I remind them every day that we're going to be a team that wins championships and you can't do that without winning every day in everything that you do."

ASU QB competition mushes on

April, 2, 2012
For all of those hoping for a quick resolution to Arizona State's three-way quarterback competition, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has some disappointing news: not gonna happen.

"I'm definitely OK with this thing going into the summer," said Norvell, who came from Pitt with new head coach Todd Graham. "Obviously, you'd like to be able to name a starter, that always helps. But in our situation, us being in our first year, and these guys all being relatively young, we want to be able to give them time to mature. If we were a third-year staff, I would say that I want a starter by the end of spring. But I don't see that being able to occur, so I'm more than OK with this going into the summer."

Given the inexperience at the position, Norvell had very little film to work with when trying to gauge Michael Eubank, Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici, so the last couple of weeks have really been his first chance to start serious evaluations.

Here's his take on the trio so far:
Kelly: Probably the most experienced of the quarterbacks, but he has some game experience. He can do a little of both. He understands throwing on timing, but can also present some promise for defenses with his legs. He's a mature young man and a quick-study of what we're doing. We need to continue to develop some consistency with him.

Bercovici: He's still growing. Great arm, understands the passing game and he gets the ball out quickly on time with a good release. He doesn't have as much experience with timing, but he's done a good job so far picking everything up.

Eubank: He's a physical talent. 6-5, 240 pounds, he can run, has a really good arm and can make a lot of different throws. He throws the deep ball exceptionally well. We need to develop consistency with his fundamentals, and a lot of that is attributed to his youth, but he can do a lot of different things for us.

Despite a "spread" mentality, Norvell said people are going to be surprised by how balanced the Sun Devils are going to be. He said -- in a perfect world -- they'll have a 55-45 percent run-to-pass ratio.

"The biggest thing for us is our tempo," he said. "We want to run 80-plus snaps a game. If we're snapping the ball 80-85 times per game, we're still throwing 40-45 times. You get the best of both worlds in this offense. But that tempo hopefully opens everything up.

"Everybody wants to consider us spread because we're in the gun so much, but we are a two-back spread team. We have a lot of straight, pro-style run schemes. We're very balanced with our play-action and run-to-pass ratio. We want to be physical. That's at every position. We want to have that mentality and be able to run the football. That opens up everything we want in the passing game and being able to execute that part of the offense."

All three took equal snaps during Saturday's scrimmage. Norvell is aware that Eubank is a "fan favorite" because of his athletic talent and size. But he won't be swayed by the opinion of others.

"Anytime you look at a young man that has those physical tools and the ability he has, people get excited about it," Norvell said. "He's got to continue to take a workman's approach and he's done a good job. He wants to know this offense as well as I know it. He's putting in the time. But you look at those other two guys, they are fierce competitors and they know what we want to do. We really have a great situation and a great competition."

ASU QB competition is wide open

March, 13, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There, it seemed, was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback.

In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the Sun Devils' starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

"My mindset changed immediately," Bercovici said. "I was really excited when I heard the news."

Of course he was. It's natural that the backup becomes the favorite to win the job when the starter leaves. Osweiler's decision meant Bercovici was suddenly in line to become No. 1 on the depth chart a year earlier than expected -- as a true sophomore.

But, as everyone also knows, Osweiler also wasn't the only person who bolted the Sun Devils. When coach Dennis Erickson was fired, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his spread passing attack moved on to UCLA. Enter Todd Graham and his spread-option, Oregon-esque offense, which asks the quarterback to be a running threat.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Jennifer Hilderbrand/US PresswireMike Bercovici was last season's backup at Arizona State, but might not be the best quarterback for new coach Todd Graham.
Bercovici has a big arm but isn't really known for his ability to run the ball.

"I'm not as familiar with the zone read," he said.

The guy who lost out on the backup job to Bercovici last preseason, sophomore Taylor Kelly, however, does have experience running the spread option. And, oh by the way, redshirt freshman Michael Eubank, an impressive athlete at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, was recruited by Graham to play quarterback at Pittsburgh.

"He tells me he knows me. He's told me that numerous times since he's been here," Eubank said. "But I'm fighting for the job like the rest of the guys. I don't feel like I have any advantage just because I know him."

What we do know: This feels like an honest-to-goodness battle. This offense seems to fit Kelly's and Eubank's comfort zone better than Bercovici's, but Graham's offense also emphasizes throwing the ball downfield -- much more so than Mazzone's quick-hit passing attack. Bercovici can hurl the rock downfield, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

But Graham isn't talking so much about the different skill sets of his signal-callers. For one, spring practices only start Tuesday, so he hasn't seen them in action. But he makes clear that there's a lot more to playing the position than passing and running.

"We spend a lot more time focusing on the intangibles, the mental part of it," he said. "The guy who will win this job will be the guy who can lead our team."

That said, becoming proficient with the spread option is a key component of the competition. But it's not all about athletic ability and blazing speed, either.

"The read zone is a part of what we do," Graham said. "We want to hurt them with our legs but slay them with our arm. Most of the guys in this system have been between 4.8 and 5-flat [in the 40-yard-dash], but if you have great technique you can be very deceptive in the option game."

(Graham said his offense best compares to what Chad Morris runs at Clemson and what new Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn ran as Auburn's offensive coordinator).

None of the three has any real college experience. And all three are young, so whoever wins could be in line to be a three- or (in Eubank's case) four-year starter. Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said each will get equal time with the first-team offense until a pecking order establishes itself.

"I don't have a timeline for when we're going to cut it to a two-man race or when we're going to name a starter," Norvell said. "It's a process and it's going to take its course. We're going to see how the guys compete."

And the competition is almost certain to extend well into fall camp.

Said Norvell, "I think I'll find it hard to name a starter after just 15 practices."
As spring practice kicks into high gear around the Big East, here's your handy-dandy guide to all of the offseason coaching moves around the league. Clip and save: (Oh, wait. This is a blog. Do not clip your computer screen.)


No changes



Randy Edsall, head coach (to Maryland)
Todd Orlando, defensive coordinator/inside linebackers (to Florida International)
Lyndon Johnson, outside linebackers/special teams coordinator (to Maryland)
Terry Richardson, running backs (to Miami)


Paul Pasqualoni, head coach
George DeLeone, offensive coordinator
Don Brown, defensive coordinator
Clayton White, special team coordinator/running backs

Internal moves:

Former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is now quarterbacks coach

Quick take:

Pasqualoni, the Connecticut native, comes aboard with two new coordinators (three if you count special teams). But the rest of the staff stayed intact. Edsall took only one assistant with him to Maryland, which is strange. There should be more continuity in this coaching change than most. The trick will be getting the old and the new styles to mesh.



Mike Groh, quarterbacks (to Alabama)


Shawn Watson, quarterbacks

Quick take:

Charlie Strong scored a victory by keeping his staff almost fully together after a successful first year. Watson, the former Nebraska offensive coordinator, looks like a great addition to coach a position in flux.



Dave Wannstedt, head coach (forced resignation)
All of Wannstedt's assistants


Todd Graham, head coach
Paul Randolph, executive associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/defensive line
Calvin Magee, assistant head coach/co-offensive coordinator/running backs
Mike Norvell, co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers/director of recruiting
Keith Patterson, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Tony Dews, tight ends
Todd Dodge, quarterbacks
Tony Gibson, cornerbacks,/recruiting coordinator
Spencer Leftwich, offensive line
Randall McCray, safeties/special teams coordinator

Quick take:

It's certainly a sea change at Pitt, with an new staff and a whole new philosophy. The presence of several West Virginia assistants lends a little more spice to the Backyard Brawl, as well. Graham has done a good job of building some excitement after the whole Wannstedt/Mike Haywood mess.



Kyle Ciarrocca, co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks (not retained)
Randy Melvin, defensive line (not retained)
Ed Pinkham, co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs (to Elon)


Frank Cignetti Jr., offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Brian Angelichio, tight ends
Jeff Hafley, defensive backs

Internal moves:

Phil Galiano moves from tight ends to defensive line
Robb Smith will coach linebackers as well as special teams

Quick take:

After a 4-8 season, Rutgers needed to make some major changes. Head coach Greg Schiano took advantage of the Pitt staff turnover to hire three former Panthers assistants. Hafley's ties in New Jersey already helped in recruiting. Cignetti will be charged with fixing a stale offense.

South Florida

No changes



Bob Casullo, assistant head coach/special teams (parted ways)


Tim Daoust, defensive end

Internal moves:

Nathanial Hackett was promoted to offensive coordinator
John Anselmo becomes assistant head coach and will work with linebackers
Dan Conley will concentrate on inside linebackers
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer will work with defensive backs
Jimmy Brumbaugh will coach defensive tackles
Special teams will be divided among the staff

Quick take:

Casullo left before last season ended, so Syracuse had already moved on. The changes in responsibilities reflect the areas of concentration for the Orange this summer, as they have many young players who need tutoring.

West Virginia


Jeff Mullen, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks (not retained)
Lonnie Galloway, receivers (to Wake Forest)
Dave Johnson, offensive line (not retained)
Chris Beatty, running backs/slot receivers (not retained)
Dave McMichael, tight ends/special teams (not retained)


Dana Holgorsen, offensive coordinator/head coach in waiting
Shannon Dawson, receivers
Bill Bedenbaugh, offensive line
Robert Gillespie, running backs

Quick take:

The entire offensive staff was let go except for Galloway, who left for Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago. West Virginia hasn't named a replacement for Galloway yet, but Dawson and Holgorsen will likely coach the receivers, with someone coming on board for special teams. The defensive staff remains intact, and Bill Stewart will coach his final year before handing the reins to Holgorsen. It will be a fascinating chemistry test.
Calvin Magee and his wife, Rosie, were driving around Pittsburgh last weekend looking for a place to live. Magee didn't need to use a GPS. Rosie knew where they were going and told him what streets to turn down.

The Steel City might not exactly be home, but it feels close enough for Magee. He worked for seven seasons as an assistant coach at West Virginia, including the last three as offensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez.

"I didn't spend a lot of time right here in Pittsburgh, but I spent a lot of time on I-79 coming in and out of here," he said.

Now, his job is to get the Panthers into their new offensive system under head coach Todd Graham. The two worked together in Morgantown, when Graham was on the other side of the ball. Graham went on to oversee potent offenses as the head coach at Rice and Tulsa, while Magee followed Rodriguez to Michigan.

The two coaches, along with co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Mike Norvell and quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge, are blending their philosophies together while watching film from last season to get a sense of what the Pitt players can do. The Panthers open spring practice March 15.

Though the Michigan/West Virginia offense was known more for its zone reads than Graham's more pass-heavy attack, Magee says there isn't that much difference between the two.

"It's funny," he said, "a lot of the base is the same. We base it from the same premise in the running game. Throwing it is a little different, and I'm excited about putting those two together. We have a good blend of people who understand the systems, and we're going to take the best of the best and go."

The offense will look dramatically different than Dave Wannstedt's pro-style philosophy. Just don't, as Graham cautioned, call it a spread.

"We want to make people play in space and defend everything sideline to sideline on every play," Magee said. "People thought we were all spread (at Michigan and West Virginia), but we had tight ends and one or two running backs most of the time.

"But they see shotgun and three or four receivers standing around and they think it's a spread, when it's really just no-huddle. We don't have four little receivers running around there and just throwing the ball around. It's still based on running the football, and then the passing game is based off of that."

Magee said he and the staff are watching all of last season's games and want to incorporate some things that Pitt did well under Wannstedt. Yet every job will be open, including quarterback. Tino Sunseri started every game last season but will have to win his job back in the spring.

"We're excited about the experience that comes back there with Tino, but we're going to make it competitive," Magee said. "Competition makes everybody better."

One spot where there's not a lot of competition, at least in the spring, is running back. Junior Ray Graham is the only experienced ball carrier and could see a lot of touches in this offense.

"I've coached a lot of very good backs in this system," said Magee, who coached running backs at West Virginia. "And, boy, he fits it."

Magee is fitting in at Pittsburgh, even if he spent several years on the other side of the Backyard Brawl rivalry. I asked him if he's gotten used to wearing the Panthers colors yet.

"I'm excited about wearing them and I love them," he said.