Kurt Roper brings system based on QB-friendly approach to Gators
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kurt Roper spent the final hours of 2013 high above the field in a coaching booth at the Georgia Dome.
They turned into some of Roper’s finest hours as an offensive coordinator.
"Sometimes it goes like that," said Roper, who is scheduled to hold his first press conference at UF this afternoon. "I haven’t had many like that."
Five days after accepting an offer from Gators coach Will Muschamp to become Florida’s new offensive coordinator, Roper coached his final game at Duke on New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M. The Blue Devils scored on all six of their drives in the first half in what turned into a 52-48 loss in Johnny Manziel’s final game at Texas A&M.
While Duke quarterback Anthony Boone pulled off his best Johnny Football impersonation — Boone threw a pair of touchdowns and ran for one as the Blue Devils racked up 365 yards in the first half to lead 38-17 at halftime — Florida fans did a collective high-five on Twitter, offering their emotional endorsements of Roper as drive after drive for Duke ended with a score.
"It was a lot of fun," Roper said. "I’m glad they had fun too."
Roper’s latest mission is to bring some fun back to Florida’s offense, which struggled last season in the Gators’ first losing campaign since 1979.
Roper wasn’t looking to move when Muschamp called. He spent six years at Duke as longtime mentor David Cutcliffe’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Duke won a school-record 10 games and played in the ACC Championship Game this past season.
Tobacco Road treated Roper well.
"I haven’t left many jobs without being told to leave," Roper said. "That’s just kind of my personality. Relationships are important to me. It wasn’t just Cut. My brother [Zac] is on that staff. We’re talking about guys I’m in weddings with. And then the players — I’ve been there six years so I recruited all of them and spent time with all of them."
However, the Gators offered a chance for Roper to return to the SEC at one of the league’s premiere programs. He spent six seasons with Cutcliffe at Ole Miss and tutored Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft.
The memories of calling plays at Ole Miss against Muschamp’s defense at LSU reminded him of the intensity of the SEC.
"That’s really where all our past stems from," Roper said of his and Muschamp’s relationship. "I’m looking forward to being part of a program like Florida. My respect for Florida is high."
The offensive philosophy Roper brings to UF is one that originated at Tennessee in the late 1980s. At the time Tennessee began to develop into more of a quarterback friendly program under head coach Johnny Majors, the offensive coordinator was Phil Fulmer and Cutcliffe was the Vols’ quarterback coach.
Tennessee’s quarterback was Andy Kelly, whom prior to Peyton Manning coming along and rewriting the school record books a few years later, set nearly all of Tennessee’s passing records during his tenure as the starter from 1989-91. Kelly led Tennessee to back-to-back SEC titles in ’89 and ’90 and went 24-5-2 as the starter.
"He’s the most resilient player I’ve coached," Majors once said. "He’s not individually inclined in the least. If something bad happens on the field, he bounces back."
When Fulmer replaced Majors as head coach late in the1992 season, Cutcliffe moved up to become offensive coordinator, a relationship that existed until Cutcliffe left to become Ole Miss’ head coach in 1999 and brought Roper, who had joined Fulmer’s staff as a graduate assistant in 1996, with him to Oxford as quarterbacks coach.
Roper’s system begins and ends with the stability — mental stability — at quarterback.
"It’s a quarterback-friendly system," Roper said. "The biggest thing is evaluation. You’ve got to evaluate and get a guy who has talent. You get a guy who has talent and can make the throws and has athleticism, and then I think they become a product of the system.
"What does that mean? If you have to lay the ball off, lay the ball off. You don’t have to throw it beyond the sticks every time on third down. Take what the defense gives you. If I don’t get angry with him when he doesn’t convert a third-and-seven because he laid it off, and then he can hang his hat on that. He can believe in me and trust in what I’m teaching. That is kind of the method in the process, to give a quarterback something to hang his hat on when making decisions. If you are changing all the time on him because you ride the emotions of the game and you get frustrated for not producing, then a guy can’t be good.
"He doesn’t know what you want. You have to be consistent in your demands."
In his first season at UF Jeff Driskel is the quarterback Roper is expected to rely on to carry out his system.
Roper is still living in a hotel and hasn’t had a lot of time to watch film of Florida’s current roster, but he comes in with some knowledge of Driskel from his days recruiting at Duke. He also talked to Boone, who attended the Manning Passing Academy with Driskel last summer, about what he saw from Driskel during their time together.
"I saw Jeff coming out of high school and thought he was a talented football player," Roper said. "He’s got a lot of ability. Great size, great arm, and can move his feet. You’ve got to be athletic to play this position and he is athletic. Anthony had nothing but great things to say about him. He thought he was a great player."
Roper’s success working with quarterbacks is impressive. Roper’s work with Duke quarterbacks Sean Renfree and Thaddeus Lewis helped both land roster spots in the NFL.
There is no secret according to Roper.
"We don’t spend a lot of time on how to trick somebody or coming up with something that someone else hasn’t done," he said. "What we try to do is teach guys how to be consistent, solid, good decision makers and allow their abilities to take over."
As he begins the process of evaluating Driskel and the rest of UF’s offense, Roper wants to minimize perceptions from the outside. That means a lot of time in his office watching film alone.
"To be honest, I don’t care what they did last year, No. 1, and I really don’t want a whole lot of opinions," he said. "I want to go out there and watch how they practice on the field when we get into spring and make my own opinions."
In 2013, the Blue Devils set a school record for total touchdowns (54), the first time they have scored 20 or more touchdowns both rushing and passing in the same season.
Roper’s experience in developing quarterbacks in a diversified offense factored huge into his climb up the coaching ladder. Duke averaged 31.6 points per game this season — totaling an average of 234.4 passing yards and 173.7 rushing yards per game despite Boone missing three games with an injury.
Next, Roper will try to implement a system that originated with Kelly at Tennessee and try to produce results in a different shade of orange at UF.
"The base principles go right back to that type of decision making," Roper said. "To me, to help a quarterback to be the best player that he is going to be, you can’t be wishy-washy. You’ve got to tell him, ‘here is what my expectations are, so now let’s go do it.’ "