For Bulldogs’ Norris, a long road home was almost ended by COVID. But not the way you think

Fresno State opened fall camp on Thursday and nickelback Morice Norris, who plays a hybrid, high-impact position on the Bulldogs’ defense, was with the Bulldogs.
That’s significant, because quite simply, Norris makes plays.
And there was a time this past offseason that it seemed Norris’ days at Fresno State were done.
COVID got him.
But not really. Kind of, almost.
That part gets complicated, so much so that the best explanation comes not from anyone A to Z on the medical staff or Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford, but from Steve Reid, who has the ominous-sounding title of Fresno State associate athletics director for compliance.
Fresno State nickel Morice Norris was fourth on the team last season in tackles and second in tackles for loss.
Fresno State nickel Morice Norris was fourth on the team last season in tackles and second in tackles for loss. Cary Edmondson FRESNO STATE ATHLETICS
Dealing with COVID season
The NCAA granted student-athletes waivers for an additional year of eligibility due to the lost or damaged season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Norris would’ve be in line for one.
But, Reid said, in that 2020 COVID season, Norris was not enrolled in school or on a football roster.
He was idled temporarily while chasing a dream, which for Norris, started from the bottom of college football.
And obtaining a waiver for Norris to receive an additional year of eligibility was no easy get.
That all was turned up in a routine check for Tedford after he returned to coach his alma mater following heart-related health issues.
But what was supposed to be an automatic additional year of eligibility granted, instantly became an, ‘uh, oh ...’
“It was not a conversation that you want to have with Coach Tedford at that time of year,” Reid said. “We had to scramble a little bit.”
Fresno State petitioned the NCAA for a waiver on Norris’ behalf, and there was genuine concern.
Without it, an expected stalwart on the Bulldogs defense would’ve played his last downs of college football during the 2022 season.
“I was nervous, I’m not going to lie,” Norris said. “It was scary.”
Reid said Norris’ case was challenging, particularly because his situation was quite unique.
In the end, the NCAA granted Norris what will be a sixth year of eligibility.
“It wasn’t as routine as we might have expected it to be because of the fact he wasn’t on a roster at a time of the COVID relief year,” Reid said. “We had to do a lot of advocacy for him.”
Before Fresno State, there was Raisin Canes and Dollar Tree
With Norris and Fresno State receiving confirmation he was back, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle had the luxury once again of devising ways to deploy a defender with the skill set to play at a high level as a cornerback, a safety and as an outside linebacker.
Norris, after days of anxious phone calls to position coach Jim Nelson for updates, just shrugged and set out to take full advantage of his senior season.
The entire eligibility episode is now just another chapter in an arduous road for Norris.
It’s also just the latest hurdle in a series of hardships Norris has dealt with since he decided to play football for the first time during his senior year at Sanger High.
Primarily a basketball player growing up, Norris did not play football until his last year of high school, joining an Apaches team at the urging of two former Sanger who went on to play at Fresno State players in Jalen Moreno-Cropper and Arron Mosby.
Norris played well to continue playing in college.
But he didn’t go straight to D-I football.
After high school graduation, Norris decided to go to Orange Coast College, which allowed him to play basketball and football.
There, he learned what it was like to work and save and live away from home, while still trying to pursue his dreams of playing high-level college football.
At Orange Coast College, Norris shared a two-bedroom apartment with five teammates, staking out a corner of the living room and making the best of it while living in the pricey Southern California city of Costa Mesa.
To help with expenses, Norris got a job at a Raising Cane’s and a Home Depot.
Still, money was tight. Food was limited. A can of beans?
“Fire,” he said.
It is a hardscrabble existence, shared by many from across the country who come to play football at California junior colleges that are among the best in the nation.
Resilience helps.
So, too, does a little ingenuity.
Norris, it turned out, had a bit of both.
“My TV, I’ve been holding that since JC,” Norris said. “I got it for $150. When you’re in JUCO you can make trades like that. I made some trades. I said $150, this and this and some shoes and I got my TV — to this day.”
On the football field, Norris had some tough luck and blew out his knee late into his freshman season in 2018.
He was able to make it back for a sophomore season in 2019.
But at the end of his junior college run, Norris had only a preferred walk-on spot at New Mexico State.
No scholarships.
So it was off from SoCal living to the land in Las Cruces, N.M.
Norris got there in the spring of 2020, but was unable to work out with the New Mexico State team while the university worked through his transcripts for admission.
“When I was out there, I didn’t have anything,” Norris said. “I couldn’t work out with the team yet so I just had a bench bar that I had bought off Amazon, and I had some weights.
“I’d wake up in the morning, I’d work out, go to work, get off work, go to the football field and work out again.
“That’s all I did out there — work out and work.”
Norris’ job outside of working out in preparation to play for football for the Aggies was working at a Dollar Tree.
Meanwhile, Norris did not play college football during the 2020 season, which was abbreviated for some programs throughout the nation and completely canceled for other schools during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Coyotes running around and everything’
In the time while waiting to be cleared at New Mexico State, Norris embraced life outside of the Central Valley and soaked in living in the “Land of the Enchantment” state.
“I saw so much crazy stuff out there,” Norris said. “I saw a skunk. I didn’t know skunks were real.
“Coyotes running around and everything. I went on hikes. I had never gone on a hike, and I’m going on a hike. It had some great views.”
Experiencing New Mexico’s outdoors served as Norris’ break from his constant grind of working out and working and while football continued to be his primary focus.
“I was going crazy in my little box,” Norris added. “But I just could drive somewhere and see a view, get some nice food. It made me feel like it was worth it, even though I was going through all that stuff at that time. But for the most part, it was me and my little walls, my bed and my TV.”
Despite Norris’ hard work away from the program, New Mexico State coached informed him in June 2021 that they were moving on from him as a preferred walk-on.
Driving almost 1,000 miles over night
Norris was in scramble mode.
“That’s a moment in my life I almost hung up the cleats and just went home and said it’s an ‘it-is-what-it-is-type of deal,’ ” Norris said. “I had a lot of self-talks in my room, just me and my little four walls and my air mattress.
“I was deciding whether I wanted to give up or not, but I’ve never been a quitter. I wasn’t going to start quitting now.”
Norris called J.D. Williams, the Bulldogs’ defensive backs coach.
Williams told him there was a camp for junior college players the next day.
But no guarantees.
“I packed up everything I got in a new car I had just bought out there for $2,000,” Norris said.
He hit the road, driving through the night.
Traveling 980 miles in a span of 15 hours.
By 8 a.m. next day, Norris had strolled back into Fresno and with two hours to spare before the Bulldogs camp.
Norris went through the drills and ran well enough to convince the Bulldogs coaching staff to let him join as a walk-on for the 2021 season.
He sat out his first season at Fresno State.
But during practices while playing cornerback, Norris would make instant and daily impressions.
“I didn’t know very much about him at all, other than he was athletic, had good size,” Coyle said. “He was extremely raw with his technique. He was all over the place, to be honest with you.
“But we kept seeing him make plays — even without what we would teach, the proper footwork, the right technique,” Coyle added. “He just had a knack for getting his hands on the ball and being disruptive.”
A break, at a new position on Bulldogs’ defense
By the start of the 2022 fall camp, Tedford put Norris on scholarship.
And all seemed finally right for Norris.
He was truly home — back at home in the Central Valley and feeling at home on the football field after switching over to the nickelback position.
In the nickel role, Norris had opportunities to thrive against the run, blitz and help in pass coverage.
Norris finished the 2022 season fourth on the team in total tackles and second in tackles for loss.
Fresno State’s defense projects to be a key strength this season after the unit finished last year 14th in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 19.4 points per game.
Could this year’s Bulldogs defense be even better?
That remains to be seen.
But when September and a season-opener at Purdue rolls around, the Bulldogs certainly expect Norris to be exponentially better with a year of experience at the position, a better understanding of scheme and technique.
An inexperienced player will sometimes rely on athleticism to take them where they need to go, Coyle said.
But at this point, one thing Norris does not lack is experience, or experiences.
“Long circle just to come back home,” Norris said. “That’s probably one of my regrets. I could have come here out of high school, but I feel things happen for a reason. Lessons had to be leaned. I’m here now, doing what I should be doing.
“I got a (championship) ring on my first year playing Division I football. I feel like all the stuff I’ve been through, it’s worth it to be where I am now.”

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