Baylor finds breakout weapon in Norwood

WACO, Texas -- While Levi Norwood outran Texas Tech defenders on Saturday, his proud father sat back and, when he wasn’t busy doing his job, made sure to savor the scene.

Brian Norwood watched from the coaches’ box at AT&T Stadium. The night was all too perfect for the Baylor associate head coach, like one of those sunsets from back home.

“It’s like you’re looking at the ocean in Hawaii,” he said. “Sometimes, you just sit back and take it all in.”

The message he delivered to his son after Baylor’s 63-34 win over the Red Raiders was simple as usual: “Good job. Good game. That was a lot of fun.”

For Levi, the fun might be just beginning. The fourth-year junior receiver and returner has quietly emerged as one of the Bears’ biggest weapons. And like his punt returns, Norwood’s journey to that big night against Tech has had twists and turns. You get used to that as a coach's kid.

He grew up in a household of wall-to-wall competition, and his older brothers held Levi to a high standard from the start. Gabe Norwood was on George Mason’s 2005-06 Final Four team and plays pro basketball in the Philippines. Jordan Norwood finished as the No. 3 receiver in Penn State history and played in the NFL. Levi always wanted to beat them.

“Oh yeah, goodness yeah, it was always a little brother thing,” Brian Norwood said.

And now Levi is making a name for himself for No. 4 Baylor, in an offense that needed someone to step up after losing Tevin Reese for the season. He had a career day against Texas Tech, with seven catches for 156 yards, touchdowns of 40 and 58 yards and a 48-yard punt return for a score that swung the game early.

"It feels really good," Levi said. "For the receivers, really we wanted to all step up and be able to do something special for Tevin."

In the locker room, his father reminded him to call his nana and granddaddy, the relatives and everyone else they consider family. They’re spread out over Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and plenty other places.

Growing up, Levi got used to moving. Brian, a native of Honolulu, had coaching stints at Arizona, Richmond, Navy and Texas Tech before spending seven years at Penn State. His son wasn’t caught by surprise when, after the 2007 season, Brian agreed to become Baylor’s defensive coordinator and reunite with Art Briles, whom he’d coached with at Tech and trusted.

Levi wasn’t thrilled about uprooting and leaving his high school in State College, but he does remember being excited about the opportunity at first. Then he arrived in Waco.

“I got down here and the food was different, the people were different, the weather was different, the landscape -- there’s no mountains or hills here,” he said. “Everything was different. It took a couple years for me to adjust.”

He didn’t particularly want to stay. Norwood signed with Penn State in Feb. 2010 after his senior season at Waco Midway. Three months later, he had a change of heart. Penn State agreed to release Norwood from his scholarship so he could stay home and attend Baylor.

“I really just had a peace about staying here,” he said. “The chaplain here, Wes Yeary, he didn’t ever really say much but he had an influence on me, just talking to him and knowing how I could grow my faith here at Baylor. That was bigger than football, bigger than family. That was more important to me than going up to Penn State.”

If that meant sitting behind future NFL receivers Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Reese, so be it. Norwood did catch 40 passes in 2012, but he’s known more for the niche he carved out returning kicks.

“I think his versatility is the key word, without question,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “Here’s a guy who returns kicks and punts, and returning punts is one of the hardest jobs on the field. It takes a special person to be able to do that on a consistent level.”

Until this season, though, he’d never returned one for a score. He’s done so twice as a junior, against Iowa State and Tech, and both runbacks have been eerily similar. Norwood gets trapped by oncoming defenders, stops, makes one miss, finds his crease and he’s off to the races.

“Levi is slippery. Extremely slippery,” quarterback Bryce Petty said. “It’s fun watching him because he can do so many things after he gets the ball.”

And after he gets to the end zone, Norwood likes to throw up a jump shot with the football. That’s a tribute to the 2010-11 season he spent as a reserve on the Bears’ basketball team. Basketball was always his first love.

As a coach and as a father, Brian Norwood loved every minute of his son’s big game on Saturday, and he admits he did a fist pump or two in the box before shifting his focus back to the safeties he oversees. In fact, at one point he lost count of how many times Levi had scored. He was too caught up in the game.

In the days since, Brian has watched the 48-yard punt return touchdown more than few times. His son can't explain what made that run look so easy.

“I guess it’s just instinct," Levi Norwood said. "I don’t know how or why I’m good at doing that."

After years of playing a supporting role for Baylor, Norwood's experience with changing directions is finally paying off.