Roper and his offense give Gators hope
August, 27, 2014
By Jeff Barlis | ESPN.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you ask Kurt Roper the coach to go back in time and evaluate Kurt Roper the quarterback, you'll get a belly laugh as he describes himself essentially as a recruiting whiff.
"Not good enough!" he chortles. "A miss!"
It's easy for Roper, now the offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators, to wax nostalgic about his all-too-brief career as a college quarterback since he's carved out a reputation as something of a quarterback whisperer more than two decades later.
A winning quarterback at Ardmore (Okla.) High School, Roper was good enough to earn a scholarship to play quarterback for the Rice Owls. His first meeting with his offensive coordinator, the late Mike Heimerdinger, brought a sense of inadequacy that offense was something far more complex than what he was used to.
"We're having a meeting the night before the first practice and he starts talking to me about defenses," Roper says. "And I had never even thought about defenses. I'm sitting there going, ‘Hey wait a second, what play are we running? Tell me the play.'
AP Photo/Phil Sandlin"He's always a positive guy, and we need that around here," Jeff Driskel said of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
"And he's talking to me about how a defense is going to be manipulated by this formation and it's going to remove this guy. And I'm already looking out the window and I see the other guys going to eat dinner. I'm thinking, ‘What am I doing? What's going on here?' "
A week later Roper was moved to defensive back.
The irony that he is now known for being a coordinator, QB coach and play caller is not lost on Roper. His vivid recollection of that first meeting illustrates how far he's come.
"It was all eye opening," Roper said last week. "I don't really know that I start getting a huge understanding of [offense] until I really started coaching it and Coach Cut started teaching me how to coach it."
Coach Cut is David Cutcliffe, a graybeard of Southern football who's been head coach at Duke since 2008.
Cutcliffe became a mentor to Roper, and the two worked side by side at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Duke. Their long partnership came to an end when Roper was hired in December to fix Florida's ailing offense.
"When I called Coach Cutcliffe about Kurt, he wasn't happy I was calling about Kurt," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, Roper's new boss. "But he certainly endorsed him as a football coach and a man."
Roper gives plenty of credit to Cutcliffe for the no-huddle spread offense he is installing at UF. But there were other key influences that have shaped his approach to coaching.
His father, Bobby Roper, brought intensity to his son's football upbringing.
"He was a defensive coordinator," Kurt said. "He was really a no-nonsense guy. He was really intense and tough to grow up around if things weren't necessarily going well all the time on the football field."
Roper also counts two of his position coaches at Ole Miss -- offensive line coach John Latina and running backs coach Rich Bisaccia -- as influences. Latina showed Roper how a sound offensive system helps make a sound line. Bisaccia helped foster Roper's ability to connect in his relationships with players and head coaches.
Joker Phillips, under whom Roper worked as the QBs coach at Kentucky in 2005, added the uptempo element Roper brought to Duke and now Florida.
The amalgamation of his past and the present opportunity to redefine and revive an offense that floundered for the previous three years are what make Roper the Gators' most important offseason addition.
After what Duke accomplished last season, Roper's presence commanded immediate respect. His personality brought a sense of calm and instilled confidence in his new players.
“He's always a positive guy, and we needed that around here," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, a fourth-year junior who has witnessed most of Florida's recent struggles from under center.
To a man, Florida's offensive players beam when they speak about their relationships with Roper. They say he's fun and funny and always has a story to tell from his football past.
"He's like a player out there," receiver Valdez Showers said. "He loves the game. He's always got energy. There's not one day where he comes out there down. You feed off his energy.
"He's always uptempo, so you want to be uptempo. That's the way the offense goes.”
On the verge of a crucial season, the Gators' offensive players are exuding the kind of attitude that hasn't been seen at UF since Tim Tebow's days.
They say they owe it to Roper and his offense. It's made them believers from early in spring practice when installation began to more recently in preseason camp and into their preparation for the fall.
"We've made a lot of big plays against a really good defense," Driskel said of facing Florida's vaunted D. " When that happens, you start to feel a little bit more excited and a little bit more confident. ...
"We had a really great, great camp. We protected the ball and made big plays. When you put those two things together, you're going to be looking at a pretty good offense.”
And a pretty good offensive mind behind it.
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