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August 11, 2013

Cameron Norcross toughens up the line

In another life it's entirely possible that Fresno State offensive line coach Cameron Norcross would have been given control of Mjölnir and dubbed the Thunder God. As it stands, he is in command of a Bulldog offensive line that protected Derek Carr as he became the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year last year. He did all of that with only two guys, Austin Wentworth and Matt Hunt, that played the entire year at the same position.

A boisterous man with a penchant for perfection, Norcross considers it his personal mission in life to make sure that the Bulldogs can pound the rock on any team in the nation. He's done a hell of a job for the Bulldogs already. Under his leadership, the Bulldogs saw Wentworth selected to All-Mountain West first-team and Norcross' unit was an important cog in an offense that finished the season ranked 17th nationally in total offense. However, Norcross considers last year's offensive blitzkrieg as nothing more than his opening salvo.

"Right now, the biggest thing we gotta set is an effort and a mindset that we're gonna be physical and we're gonna play with great effort," Norcross said. "So, that's what the biggest thing is. The older guys aren't bad right now, but we got some guys in the second group that may have been here in the spring, or, you know, Sean Rubalcava, who's new from down in Cerritos. The way they practice, the way they do things is different than the way I do things. So, I have to make sure that they understand it's not acceptable to do that up here. We've got a certain way we practice, a certain way we believe, and that's the only thing we're going to accept."

One thing Norcross refuses to accept in 2013 is unphysical line play. Displeased with the overall strength of his linemen, Norcross challenged them to get bigger and the players have responded.

"I think the big thing is, in the weight room, we weren't very strong last year," Norcross said. "Our kids went into the weight room, done a great job, all increased their strength, and so I expect there to be more physicality. Also, there's a hesitant nature at time because of the unknown of - they're still learning the offense. So they couldn't play as physical and as fast as they could because they're still questioning it in their mind.

"I think through spring, especially in our first group, we're a lot different now. The other thing is, I'll tell you what, our defense, what they do, they put that in our mindset while we're practicing against them, 'cause they're moving, slanting, and all that. Our guys become hesitant. Once we get preparing for other people, we gotta knock that out of them because other people don't move, and blitz, and do all that stuff as much as our defense. They get it in their mind that they have to be tentative. Once we get into the game-plan, we're gonna work on just getting downhill, banging guys in the mouth, going vertical, and having a real power run game."

Despite the fact that the Bulldogs air the ball all over the field, Norcross believes that the heart and soul of this team is a power running game.

"We're a physical run team within a spread offense," Norcross said. "It drives me nuts. It's one of my pet peeves, people say, 'You guys are an inside zone team. You can't be physical.' I absolutely disagree with that. To me, inside zone is a power run game. You're gonna create double teams at the point of attack, you're gonna have multiple double teams across the board, and you're gonna get vertical movement if you're doing it right.

"That was the thing last year: at times we didn't understand because of the way they'd done it in the past, they're kinda combining things. Now we're starting to get the concept of staying on blocks, getting double teams, and treating it more like the traditional power. So even though we're still spread offense, we're still gonna try to spread you out, decrease the numbers in the box, and then run. We still wanna be physical and downhill vertical blockers."

You might think that Norcross draws inspiration from power run teams like an Alabama. You'd be wrong if you did. Norcross borrows his running philosophy from none other than Chip Kelly, now head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Absolutely," Norcross said when asked if he borrows from Kelly. "Where I came from, that was kinda the deal. That's the knock on inside zone is that everyone that doesn't understand the way we block it says, 'It's a lateral game. Your guys are soft.' And I say, 'No, we're absolutely not. We're gonna drive you off the ball just like those teams that run power drive you off the ball.' When we get a double team on inside zone it should look the same as a power double team."

Like any hard-nosed coach, Norcross isn't shy about giving praise when it's due. He may demand perfections, but he has no problem coaching his guys up when they've earned it.

"It's kinda two different questions to me," Norcross said of guys who have stepped up or become mentors. "A guy that's stepped up at the end of the spring is Justin Northern. He's really coming along. We should get a lot of production out of him if he continues to do what he's done. He's become a different guy. He's a guy that's very analytical so the game was really fast to him last year. But now he understands it. He's seen it for a whole year, things slow down. It's not like bullets flying at him now. It's like big soft balls flying at him. He's really done a good job. He's increased his weight, his strength, and his understanding of the game.

"As far as guys that have stepped up to mentor guys, Austin Wentworth is a guy that was a leader for us last year. Now he understands that he's a senior and he's gotta take the bull by the horns. Cody Wichmann is another one. He was a sophomore last year, even though he started every game, but he still felt he was a sophomore underclassman. Now that he's a junior, I see him taking the guys more and coaching on his own. As I'm looking at some guys and he sees something else that I might now see, I hear him coaching. When you get your veterans coaching your young guys, it's pretty special. You know that the veterans have started to understand now because they know what you wanna do and they know the coaching points."

There might still be some people out there under the impression that spread teams can't possess a physical run game. Norcross plans to dispel those misconceptions this season. The Bulldogs practice a physical run game. The Bulldogs believe in a physical run game. Now Norcross plans to make sure the only thing their opponents can do is accept their physical run game.

Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates as Fresno State gets ready for the season opener against Rutgers.

Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.


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