The Daily Nole

Sunday Centerpiece: Breaking Down Each Member of FSU’s Offensive Staff

FSU athletics

Piece-by-piece, day-by-day, new Florida State football head coach Mike Norvell built his first staff as the man in charge. It was a highly-anticipated task, thanks to Norvell’s results at Memphis which allowed multiple staff members to get hired away by bigger programs.

The question was on everyone’s mind…would Norvell’s first FSU staff be a star-studded cast of proven Power 5 coaches? Would it be a low-risk, low-reward group of familiar coaches with little experience at a high level? Or maybe you’re a rational and well-adjusted fan who thought it’d be something in the middle. To each their own.

We will give you our 100 percent honest opinions on each member of FSU’s coaching staff. We are not implying that other sites are outright lying to you — but we do think other sites are under a certain pressure to be overly positive, simply because they have an amount of access that would be jeopardized by public criticism.

You’re in luck if you want the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth. I’ve been watching Memphis football for quite some time, being the son of a city native and having family all over west Tennessee. I’m not proclaiming to be an expert or connected on the level that a Memphis beat reporter might be.

But I’ve almost certainly watched more Memphis football than anyone else on the FSU beat and I have a context to my opinions on Norvell and his staff that others simply don’t. None of this guarantees my thoughts/predictions will turn out correct, of course. Just something to keep in mind.

Bottom Line: A good staff with certain limitations

Is this the staff the one that will get Florida State back to national competitiveness? No, I don’t think so. Is it the staff that will get them back to a decent level? Yes, I believe that. It will be the staff that beats teams they should beat and does not get boat-raced against elite teams (first year wash not withstanding).

The first year will be a very tough test for Norvell. The schedule is harder than it was in 2019 and opens up with a resurgent West Virginia team and a great Boise State team. Anything from 5-7 to 8-4 could be in play. If they come out flat, I wouldn’t panic.

One thing that’s more of a relief for Norvell than it was for Willie Taggart is that the fan base has lower expectations in the very first season. This team isn’t fresh off a stretch of 10-plus win seasons with a major letdown directly preceding it. This is a team coming off one of the worst 3-year periods in program history — at least since the mid-1970s. Norvell has manageable expectations to start.

Though it sure would be nice if he could beat those expectations…and a few of these hires do help those chances.

Mike Norvell (HC)

Let’s get it out of the way. What do we think of Norvell as a coach? I’m evaluating him on everything he’s done to this point, which includes the first few weeks on the job. Here’s what I can say.

Norvell, as a play-caller and offensive mind, is respectable. He’s more proven than someone like Willie Taggart, though maybe less of a guarantee than someone like Florida head coach Dan Mullen. His results as a coordinator at Arizona State and head coach at Memphis would indicate that he is very adept at identifying the weaknesses of his offense and tailoring his play calls to their strengths.

For instance: What he has done with Brady White is nothing short of phenomenal. Norvell got the Tigers to a top-10 offense with a signal-caller who turns it over easier than he can put his cleats on. His ability to maximize the talent of guys like Damonte Coxie and Kenny Gainwell is another cause for optimism, and the NFL success of past players indicates he can find an elite caliber of athlete.

As an overall head coach? He’s got a lot to prove at Florida State. He’s done a terrific job so far, and has admittedly made moves that I wasn’t sure he would make. Norvell realized that running this level of program requires a lot more support behind the scenes, and his commitment to growing the shadow staff (along with off-the-field positions for guys like Bruce Warwick), is the clearest signal that he’s devoted to competing at a high level.

I still have reservations about his ability to respond when things don’t go his way — and whether he can install a culture which will lend itself to long-term success. People tend to give Justin Fuente too much credit for Norvell’s success at Memphis, but one thing that’s undeniable is that Fuente built up the program up from a very low place. Norvell’s starting spot at FSU won’t be nearly that low, but it’s going to be a grind, and I want to see his plan in action if the 2020 season is tougher than expected.

Kenny Dillingham (OC)

Since Norvell will be calling the plays, Dillingham’s role is going to be different than most offensive coordinators. He had a similar role at Auburn under Gus Malzahn, so it’s not something he’s unfamiliar with. A lot of his duties revolve around scouting — both recruits, and opposing teams.

Auburn never lacked talented play-makers, so Dillingham will transition seamlessly to Florida State. It also helps that Dillingham has a lot of experience with every position on offense, making him a Jack-Of-All-Trades type coach.

His recruiting is adequate. Dillingham’s commits at Auburn included three blue-chips, though none of them were on the offensive side of the ball. Thankfully his offensive commit list has multiple junior college linemen — as well as an underrated 3-star lineman from the high schools ranks. Dillingham did a similar job at Memphis, where the players he identifies aren’t necessarily headline-grabbers, but are essential to plugging whatever holes are on the roster.

Think of him as more of an assistant to the head coach rather than a distinct offensive coordinator. He’ll have his part in game-planning and scouting and all that jazz. But his presence will be felt strongest with roster evaluation and recruiting.

Alex Atkins (OL)

We need to get this one fact out of the way before discussing the offensive line: No amount of coaching can cover up a deficiency in talent. It can work around it. It can do the best with what it’s been given. But it cannot give players more talent. It cannot make a Division II level player into an average Division I player.

This is why I can’t judge Atkins too much on his coaching results at previous stops. Those provide optimism, especially his stint at Charlotte where he quickly turned their run blocking and pass blocking into an impressive force in just one season. His one season as offensive coordinator coincided with a jump in the SP+ offensive rankings from 125th to 51st.

Any time a coach like Norvell is impressed with an opposing coach after playing against them (Atkins was at Tulane from 2016 to 2018), it typically means they were blown away with what they saw.

Yet…Atkins needs to be ready for the task ahead. He’s going to have to recruit harder than ever before if he wants to have a successful offensive line. He’s young and has connections all throughout the south, which should help quite a bit. For now, put this spot into “wait and see” mode.

Chris Thomsen (TE)

Thomsen’s likely role will be both tight ends and offensive tackles. Florida State needs as many eyes on the offensive line as it can get and Thomsen is both an experienced and respected coach in this area. What’s most encouraging is the amount of NFL players that Thomsen has coached at both Arizona State and TCU.

His players respect him and regard him as a pivotal figure in their development. Norvell seems to have a good understanding of what state the FSU offensive line currently resides in, and someone like Thomsen ensures they will receive a high floor of coaching. This hire won’t blow anyone away, but it’s a great sign that Norvell is balancing his first staff.

Ron Dugans (WR)

Why risk getting an outside wide receivers coach when the guy who’s there already is one of the best in the game? One of the better early decisions of Mike Norvell’s tenure was retaining Dugans early on in the process, for a couple reasons.

Firstly, his coaching has been welcomed at FSU. His receiving group was quite deep this season and had a very balanced mix of strengths. Even the guys who weren’t as well-regarded coming out of high school seemed to take a lot of steps forward. Ontaria Wilson and Keyshawn Helton are the most notable names, even with both players having their season cut short due to injury.

His receivers also didn’t seem to be lacking in any area. Their blocking stayed consistent throughout the year, which has been a sore spot for quite some time.

Secondly, Dugans serves an absolutely vital role in recruiting. His retention allowed Florida State to sign three receivers in the early signing period (Bryan Robinson, Ja’Khi Douglas, Kentron Poitier) and the Seminoles look to be in good position to sign another in February (Malachi Wideman). Beyond that, Dugans will become the primary South Florida connection, and will likely play an expanded role in recruiting the state.

David Johnson (RB)

Since the running backs coach position requires the least amount of coaching acumen, Johnson is being evaluated primarily on his recruiting chops. That’s fantastic news for Florida State fans, who are wondering how Norvell will do on the recruiting trail.

Johnson has been a top-3 recruiter for Tennessee in back-to-back seasons. In just two years, his list of commitments includes five blue-chips, spread out across wide receiver, running back, linebacker, and offensive line. Johnson’s connections to Memphis are the strongest, but he proved that he can go into places like Georgia and beat out other teams for top-tier players. His recruiting grounds should be viewed as “the south”. This spot needed someone with an unimpeachable record in that area — and they just got him.

Clint Eiland is the lead writer for The Daily Nole. Follow Clint on Twitter @ClintEiland. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook. To pitch an idea, author a post or to learn more about The Daily Nole, email Mike Ferguson at

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