Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. is shouting at breakfast time. It’s normal for him.
Norton is loud but predominantly positive. And he has no problem getting excited for his 19th career training camp as coach or player.
Nor should the veterans, Norton Jr. explained, when asked if it’s difficult for players who have been through camp multiple times to find that energy:
“Well if they love ball, no. We know how temporary this game is and we know how short the window is to play, so no. If they love ball and they’re a veteran, no. I can’t even imagine that.”
“I always pattern my coaching after how I played. I’m going to approach it that way – with a lot of energy, with a lot of enthusiasm and really enjoy what I do, and it’s contagious to my players. … I’m naturally that way from the way I am and being around my coaching staffs from the past years. A lot of energy and enthusiasm, that’s the only way how to do it.”
The Raiders have Norton around for his first training camp as an NFL defensive coordinator. His storied career, and some of his coaching quirks, are the result of a military background.
Norton’s father, grandfather and uncle were all military members, and he reflects the influence. He always comes back to one thing, though, he loves football, and that there’s little more necessary.
It’s a good thing this year, too, because Norton has an intriguing challenge this year. Oakland’s most experienced cornerback, D.J. Hayden, has started only 10 games in his career. Not even a full season’s worth of starts, and he’s the wily veteran.
The Raiders brought in new blood each of the last three offseasons, but decided to develop the in-house talent this year.
It’s a huge gamble from a pure football and analytics perspective. No coach can truly know what the players are capable of, and the mathematical sample for the team is so small that it’s tough to reach any hard conclusions.
What we think we know from the starting corners, Hayden, Keith McGill and T.J. Carrie, is that there’s a lot of potential yet to be unleashed.
“We’ve only been here a little over a week. Again, the competition is there. The young corners that I’ve been with in the past, they started out with no one knowing who they were, then all of the sudden they’re the stars of the league. And it’s a matter of coaching, developing, time, energy, effort and just the group. The whole group. A village raising everybody.”
It’s also a work in progress, Norton says, and the finish line is a distant sight up the road. Still, Norton says he sees a certain level of potential within a roster that is being looked at as a competitive team for the first time since the passing of late Al Davis.
So far, the defensive backs look rusty and underwhelming. That’s to be expected this early in the season; it’s much easier to run a predetermined route than shadow one.
But the Raiders took a bold step in keeping youth in the defensive backfield, and the corners will be expected to mature very quickly.
“It’s just a matter of work. It’s a matter of experience. It’s a matter of time. It takes time. Winners aren’t built in a week. It takes time. That’s what camp is for and they’re working their tails off.”
The wide receiver group looks more talented than the Raiders have had in a long time. Presumed starters Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper will remain the focal point, but depth is there too.
Receiver Brice Butler made an outstanding one-handed grab after running a precision route with the suddenness needed to bring his game to the next level. Butler, 6-foot-3 and capable of 4.3 speed, has needed polish in order to become a legitimate threat in the league. He’s had all of the raw talent.
It’s very possible that he’s gotten there, or very close to it.
One of the early picks to make the 53-man roster despite being an undrafted free agent is running back Michael Dyer. He’s got exceptional quickness, and has been getting close looks as the team’s kick returner thanks to he quick acceleration. … One of the biggest offseason acquisitions might not be a player, it’s the strength and conditioning group pulled from EXOS, who specialize in getting high-caliber athletes prepared for the NFL combine. 72 players who trained with EXOS were drafted in 2015, one third of the total number of players selected this spring. They focus on calisthenics more than other training groups, though they also run individual-specific plans to get guys in position to realize their potential. One player who spoke with SFBay on Monday considered it an upgrade over the previous staff, though it wasn’t necessarily an indictment of the prior group.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.