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Mike Norvell bullish about 2015 Arizona State offense

While Arizona State's offensive muscle -- 36.9 points per game -- was impressive in 2014, there's a possibility the Sun Devils weren't yet flexing. Demario Richard, for one, thinks the main act still awaits.

"If you thought our offense was explosive last year, just wait for this season," the running back said.

Veteran center Nick Kelly echoed that sentiment in a feature story last month.

"This spring, we're operating on a whole other level," he said.

The confidence emanating from the desert is palpable. Despite the losses of top receivers Jaelen Strong (NFL Draft) and Cameron Smith (knee surgery), the Sun Devils feel that their engine is just now roaring to full life.

It's no surprise, then, that offensive coordinator Mike Norvell -- the primary architect of ASU's attack -- is also bullish. A receiver back in his playing days at Central Arkansas, Norvell has specialized in developing the Sun Devils' passing game ever since his arrival with head coach Todd Graham prior to the 2012 season. Arizona State players say they've become increasingly comfortable with the intricacies of the up-tempo attack ever since, and quarterback Mike Bercovici's mastery of the controls has fueled the coordinator's optimism.

"[Bercovici] is the leader of this football team," Norvell says. "He knew the offense as good as anybody going into spring, but he still approached as if it was his first year. He's cleaned up details. He's improved his anticipation. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."

Even though the Sun Devils have technically graduated starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, a strong sense of reassurance comes from the fact that Bercovici has already enjoyed success as the main man -- he started three games while Kelly was hurt last season and threw for 1,445 yards. There's evidence that the fifth-year senior can be the point guard ASU needs to distribute the football to a bevy of versatile weapons.

"He doesn't have to do anything extraordinary," Norvell explains. "He just has to take what the defense gives us."

Defenses will likely have to give ASU plenty out of respect to the Sun Devils' plethora of options. The backfield is brimming with talent. Between Richard (5.7 yards per carry as a freshman), Kalen Ballage (up 17 pounds from last season), De'Chavon Hayes (known as "Gump" for his breakaway runs this spring), and early enrollee Nick Ralston, an intense competition for carries has taken hold.

"No guy can take a day off," Norvell said. "The competition has gone beyond practice. It's gone to the weight room. It's even gone to the meeting room."

Norvell again plans on using plenty of two-back offensive sets in 2015, and his confidence in those four options -- "all of our guys can be every-down backs, they're all interchangeable," he said -- has allowed him to move leading 2014 rusher D.J. Foster all over the field.

"You will see D.J. line up at every position you can possibly imagine," Norvell said.

Some creativity might be required if Foster is to continue hand-offs as running back, but that's in the plan for the senior, as are snaps in which he lines up all over the perimeter. Foster has already seen action at slot receiver, but Norvell envisions him splitting wide as well.

"Our versatility will allow us to keep free from too many tendencies," he said.

Foster will be needed outside, as Arizona State lost quite a bit of receiver production. Strong was an aptly-named force for the offense over the past two years, and Smith delivered 41 catches in 2015. Between those targets, the Sun Devils must replace 123 catches and 16 touchdown receptions. Foster is expected to pick up some of that slack, while UCLA graduate transfer Devin Lucien -- whom Norvell recruited back when he coached at Tulsa -- is expected to be a featured player.

"He can be a home run hitter for us, a big play threat," Norvell says. "He can help us do some of the things Jaelen did."

Ellis Jefferson (6-foot-4) and true freshman Terrell Chatman (6-3) will also be counted on to make up for Strong's size, while Norvell looks at explosive junior college transfer Tim White as a weapon who can help fill Smith's void.

"We have quite a few pieces," Norvell says. "It's all about finding the best mix."

Discovering the right combination is also necessary on the offensive line, where ASU must replace tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka. The Sun Devils are led by Kelly, whom Graham has called the best center in the country. Kelly gutted out the last half of 2014 on two bad knees and was forced to undergo surgery on both after the season, but is healthy now and ready to orchestrate the Sun Devils' frenetic pace.

"If you didn't know what Kelly was playing through last year, you have a whole new respect for his toughness and the kind of player he is," Norvell says.

So there's a combination of grit, experience, and explosiveness that ASU has amassed, and this strong mix screams potential.

"I feel very good about where we can be," Norvell says. "If guys continue to work and stay healthy, they'll continue to grow. I think the sky's the limit. But we haven't done anything yet. It doesn't matter what people are saying before the season. It's all about what they're saying after it."