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Florida State Spring Game to Showcase Assistant Alex Atkins’s Rise

What he is doing has little precedent across the country: a Black offensive line coach who is also an offensive coordinator.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — You probably don’t remember the night Tulane beat Memphis in 2018, but Mike Norvell does. On a Friday night in New Orleans, the Green Wave racked up 318 yards rushing and beat Norvell’s Tigers 40–24. Alex Atkins was on the other sideline as run game coordinator, serving under offensive coordinator Doug Ruse and head coach Willie Fritz.

In 2020, Norvell was hired at Florida State, and, while trying to find an offensive line coach, Atkins’s name came up. Norvell called.

“He asked me, ‘What do you want? What is your desire? I’m gonna hold you accountable to what you say you want,’” Atkins says. “If you say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna become a coordinator.’ I’m gonna treat it as you told me that. I’m gonna see how much you put in to get it. It’s not just maximizing players, it’s maximizing coaches. We work for the coach. There’s only one coach and we’re the assistant. If you say I want to do this, well, then display the qualities to do that.”

By that point, Atkins was at Charlotte and had already done what is a relative rarity: Call the plays on offense while coaching the offensive line. Atkins talked to Norvell about wanting to be an offensive coordinator again as well as being a head coach one day. He acknowledged the risk in giving up an OC role and title to go back to solely being an OL coach, but he knew it would help him reach his ultimate goal.

Norvell was clear at the time: He hadn’t hired an offensive line coach to OC for him yet, although he’d seen it done during his time as an assistant at Tulsa. Kenny Dillingham was already set to be Norvell’s first OC at FSU. There were no guarantees, but if Atkins could prove his value and the opportunity came up, he’d have his shot given Norvell’s track record of promoting from within. When Dillingham went to Oregon after the 2021 season, the opportunity came up, and Atkins is now the offensive coordinator for the Seminoles.

Alex Atkins to make his debut as Florida State offensive coordinator at the 2022 spring football game in Tallahassee.

“I absolutely enjoyed the conversation and just hearing his desires and what he wanted to do,” Norvell says. “And even his perspective in what that looked like and knowing that the primary focus was on the job that he had but also working with him for two years I got to see the investment of him wanting to know and grow in areas that he wasn’t directly responsible for for his future.”

Coaching is a deeply relationship-driven business, and Atkins knows it. He started his coaching career coaching tight ends after playing offensive line at UT-Martin. His offensive coordinator at Martin gave him his start in coaching when he wasn’t sure what his future was. He wasn’t just there to be a warm body in the room, and the tight ends on that team didn’t just block. He had to learn the nuances of a varied passing game.

After being a graduate assistant at Marshall for a year, he became an offensive line coach at the JUCO, FCS and Group of 5 levels. Early on, he realized he wanted to run an offense. He learned how through his natural curiosity.

“When I got to Marshall, [Bill Legg] was the first guy I’d ever seen call plays and coach O-line. I was like, ‘Man, it’s possible,’” Atkins says. “When I sat with him watching him evaluate recruits—he did it at all positions—I got to learn even more, which affected that curiosity even more. How would I run a meeting? How would I structure it? So having that vision gave me ‘O.K., this is how I would do it.’ But then being authentic to myself, I probably wouldn’t do it this way exactly, but I kinda have a structural plan for it.”

An offensive line coach can be thought of as the shadow offensive coordinator for most teams. While some head coaches or OCs may have to figure out how to block for a play on their own, most work with their OL coach.

“Something I’ve really appreciated about Alex throughout these last few years is, whether it was us going through and watching film in a seven-on-seven—a part of practice with no O-linemen even participating in a drill—he was always present,” Norvell says. “He wanted to make sure he understood the big-picture approach of what we were asking guys to do. His growth in tying the things of the protections and the run game to how we’re making that function from a big-picture perspective—I really appreciated that.”

O-line coaches can become siloed to a degree. Some of it has to do with the bunker mentality involved with the position. Offensive linemen are classically thought of more as the nameless, faceless unit that does the dirty work so the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers can get the glory. But there is also the sheer amount of work it takes to coach that position—one of the most technique-based roles on any team with three different positions to coach in one room: center, guard and tackle. And as FSU tight ends coach Chris Thomsen says—himself a longtime OL coach at previous stops—the offensive line has five players who can mess up a play. It’s not that O-line coaches don’t care about the nuances of the passing game, it’s that they may not have the time to focus on it given that OL responsibilities can keep you busy “literally 24 hours a day.” Atkins is different.

“He’ll come in and say, ‘Your boy got the Bang 8 on this, right?’” wide receivers coach Ron Dugans says. “And I’ll be like how you know? He’s studying it. He’s paid attention to a lot of the things that go on in the pass game.”

So what has changed for Atkins and FSU’s staff? The answer is not all that much, which is the value of hiring internally. Atkins still keeps the same seat in staff meetings, and former offensive analyst Tony Tokarz took over as QB coach now that Dillingham is gone.

Norvell will be the primary play-caller, which he has done before as a head coach at Memphis. Atkins called plays while at Charlotte for head coach Will Healy, who is much more of a hands-off CEO type, but Atkins has said much of the reason he came to Tallahassee was to learn from Norvell.

Offensive coordinators do much more than simply call plays. Play-callers by and large don’t sit in their office during game week by themselves and then magically produce the play sheet Saturday mornings. FSU is the norm in play-call collaboration. Coaches are assigned situations (red zone, goal line, third-and-short, etc.) and present them during the week. Now Atkins is involved in all those meetings, not just his own responsibilities, which typically settled on the offensive line, pass protection and run game.

“He is leading the day-to-day operations of what we’re doing offensively and he brings great value in what he sees,” Norvell says. “I don’t want every person on our staff, and especially our coordinators, to be a carbon copy. I want them to have their own perspective and what they see and be able to bounce ideas to get that perspective.”

What Atkins is doing has little precedent across the country. He’s a Black offensive line coach who is also an offensive coordinator. According to research done by the Tallahassee Democrat, only 10 offensive coordinators at 65 Power 5 schools have a primary offensive line background, and only four coach the offensive line while serving as the team’s only offensive coordinator. A 2017 study of P5 programs showed only three offensive line coaches in the P5 were Black. Across college football, roughly half of players are Black in any given year.

OCs most often come from the quarterback coaching pipeline, and QB coaches typically played the position. The further along you go into this specific career pipeline, the more you realize part of the reason why there are so few Black head coaches at the FBS level, i.e., there are only two Black OCs at the 14 ACC programs.

“I do think it shows progress as far as examples,” Atkins said at his introductory press conference. “A lot of people lead by example by creating belief that it is possible because at one point it wasn’t believed that it was possible. … But I do think it’s significant because anytime there’s a first or only, it creates belief, which creates inspiration.”

“He’s great at what he does, and I think it’s something that should be celebrated because it’s an opportunity that’s well deserving.” Norvell says. “He was able to do all the things in his career to get this opportunity. I’m excited and hopeful that that recognition is seen throughout his future, hopefully one day provides an opportunity for him to be a Black head coach.”

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