Ken Norton Jr. only knows one speed. It’s full throttle. That comes across in his coaching style, which is intense to say the least.
The new Raiders defensive coordinator was like that as a player. He’s like that as a coach. Exchanging pads and jersey for a straw hat and sunglasses hasn’t changed Norton one bit.
Jack Del Rio loves it. The players thrive on his energy.
“Being in that meeting room with him is exciting,” linebacker Khalil Mack said. “He gets you excited to do your job and love it even more, because you see how much he loves it. It’s a great match. You can tell it’s going to work out.”
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This match wouldn’t have worked out had Norton stuck to his original plan. He never considered coaching during a storied 13-year playing career.
“You want to walk away as a player on empty,” Norton said last week. “You want to have nothing left. I had no thoughts of coaching at all … There were coaches along the way that thought I could be a good coach, but I knew as much as I was giving, there would be nothing left. I always felt start on full, finish on empty. I was on empty when I left.”
Norton’s tanked re-filled early in retirement. After four years away, he was ready to re-join the game. Then-USC head coach Pete Carroll, one of Norton’s defensive coordinators while playing in San Francisco, gave him his start as Trojans linebackers coach. He stuck with Carroll at USC and joined him with the Seattle Seahawks.
Separation came a decade later, when Norton joined former teammate Jack Del Rio in Oakland. Norton looked at Raiders tape from a year ago, and thought they needed two things: scheme simplicity and a spark.
He’s giving them both. The Raiders plan to play fast and aggressive, without bogging players down with complex assignments. The Raiders plan to play with passion, something Norton aggressively, demonstrably demands each and every day.
“I am who I am,” Norton said. “I’ve coached and played the same way. Early on in my coaching career, I learned that I needed to approach games, practice, meetings the way I played the game – just hard while giving it everything you have. I think the players appreciate that.
"Over my time as a coach and player, I’ve discovered that players appreciate honesty. You give them everything you have, and a lot of times the players, they have a tendency to become like their coach. I wouldn’t mind guys having a lot of energy, feisty, smart, enthusiastic, really care about what they’re doing, giving everything they have. I like to have players like that.”
Every defender interviewed during the offseason program speaks glowingly of Norton’s approach to coaching. He is demanding, but extremely positive when things go well.
“It’s fun but different, just because of how fired up he is every day,” safety Charles Woodson said. “Every morning when you walk in, he’s the one guy that you’re going to hear in the building. When you come in and you hear him, you almost have to be ready for work. It’s been great. I think the guys have responded to him and his style. I think it’s going to be fun to get a chance to work with him.”
The Raiders defense has significant improvement ahead, Norton believes it could be the start of something positive.
“Guys are playing really hard. Guys are showing up every day,” Norton said. “They have really bought into the style and the philosophy that I’m bringing to them. I really feel like they are giving themselves a chance to be really good.”