John E. Hoover: OU's Norvell often turns projects into stars
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
11/27/12 at 5:28 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blogOriginal Print Headline: Projects become stars with Norvell
NORMAN - Who knows what major-college athletic directors are thinking at any given moment?
But if any of those ADs who helped orchestrate Bloody Sunday are thinking of hiring a head football coach, they'd be wise to look into Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell.
Five Bowl Subdivision jobs came open on Sunday when coaches at Auburn, Boston College, Colorado, North Carolina State and Purdue were fired. California fired Jeff Tedford last week. Arkansas announced interim train wreck John L. Smith won't be back. Tennessee booted Derek Dooley. Kentucky canned Joker Phillips. Mike Price retired at UTEP.
That's a lot of attractive jobs. Some ADs will no doubt cycle through the same old, tired retreads. Some will insist on head coaching experience. Some will follow the crowd to this year's hottest coordinators.
But among them all, who has done a better job than Norvell?
No one, that's who.
In his five seasons as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Oklahoma, Norvell helped run-of-the-mill players like Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias become record-setting receivers and NFL prospects, transformed Ryan Broyles from mercurial punk to caring citizen and compassionate leader (and the NCAA's all-time receiving leader), and has guided Kenny Stills to three years of stardom.
Norvell last spring landed college football's most heralded class of wide receiver recruits. The Sooners' signing day haul included a junior college All-American, a five-star prep stud, a local legend, and stars from Los Angeles and St. Louis - and countless thousands of frequent-flier and rental-car miles.
And when it became apparent the juco star Norvell signed in February wouldn't qualify academically, he went out and dug up another - in May.
But other than Broyles, Norvell's latest project just might be his best.
Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders played at Penn State and Fresno State last season. Now, mere months after they transferred to Oklahoma, they are Norvell's newest superstars.
Saturday night against Oklahoma State, in a game the Sooners had to win, a game in which they needed every offensive contribution they could gather, Brown and Saunders were better than ever.
Brown tied the school record with 15 catches, set a career-high with 146 yards and caught a crucial 2-point conversion in a fourth-quarter rally that led to a 51-48 overtime victory. It was his third 100-yard performance in his last four games.
Saunders caught 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and started the Sooners' comeback with an 81-yard punt return touchdown. It was his second consecutive 100-yard game and third of the season. He, too, had previously tied Broyles' school mark of 15 catches in a game (for 181 yards versus Notre Dame).
Going into Saturday's season finale at TCU, Brown is second on the team with 62 catches, 795 yards and four TDs, while Saunders is third with 46 receptions and 658 yards with two touchdowns.
These aren't plug-and-play guys. Brown, a senior from Wilmington, Del., is 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds. Saunders, a junior from Elk Grove, Calif., is 5-10, 160. They had to be integrated into the system and fulfill their roles.
"I don't know that there was a huge, huge learning curve for them, but there was some," said quarterback Landry Jones. "But they did a great job picking up the offense."
Brown reluctantly left Penn State after the NCAA told players they could transfer elsewhere without having to sit out because of the harsh sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Saunders left Fresno State reportedly because he was having breathing difficulties in the San Joaquin Valley's poor quality air.
The fact that the tireless Norvell found them, courted them, landed them and has developed them speaks volumes about who he is and what he does.
Norvell said former Fresno State coach Pat Hill "raved" about Saunders, who has become the ideal replacement for Broyles.
In Brown's case, recruiting Penn State players was a sensitive topic. While some coaches descended on Happy Valley like paratroopers, Norvell recruited from a respectful distance.
"I didn't think it was right, and Bob (Stoops) didn't either," Norvell said. "Justin is an incredibly loyal kid. He didn't want to leave Penn State. He loves that school. But at the same time, it was an unusual circumstance."
Brown and his parents, Joel and Iris, gained a deep appreciation for Norvell's tact.
"He was really good," Iris Brown told the Tulsa World on Monday. "Very respectful. Really low-key. He gave Justin a lot of space. He was not pushy. At all."
The Browns attended Senior Day on Saturday. Before the OSU game, with tears in his eyes, Norvell thanked them for trusting him with their son. After the game, there were more tears.
"You could just see it in his face," Iris said. "Kind of like a proud papa."
On Monday, before they caught a flight back to Delaware, Joel and Iris Brown glowed about the relationship between their son and his coach.
"What they promised, they delivered," Iris said. "They care about him as a person, and as a parent that's so important. You know, I want you to care about my child. And they have. Coach Norvell is wonderful."
Despite signing the nation's best incoming class of receivers, the Sooners went into this season short-handed after returning starters Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks were suspended. Stoops said Monday he told Norvell to locate whatever options he could, and in Brown and Saunders, Norvell drew a pair of aces.
"Those guys have made a tremendous impact on our team and on our younger players," Norvell said. "... Time and circumstances brought everybody together. It's a credit to our program and Coach Stoops and our offense and the success we've had to be able to attract a kid like that."
True enough. But it's also a credit to Norvell.
Now the question is whether or not some athletic director will give credit where credit is due and interview Jay Norvell.