Let me preface this column on Florida’s new offensive coordinator by saying that in general I had learned my lesson with offensive coordinators. I say that because everyone was looking for the bug home run hire for this position. Many thought it the only way this team and coaching staff could be successful next year. Many have already begun ringing the tower bell of doom because they do not deem Kurt Roper as the glitzy Hollywood A-lister they had envisioned.
Well consider if you will the thought that perhaps there is no such thing as a home run hire at offensive coordinator. That there is no such thing as a big-splash pickup at this position. Because I think that may just be the case.
I used to put supreme importance on the OC position, just a half-step below the head coach (and sometimes higher) in importance. But I think I learned my lesson, so to speak, after the Charlie Weis disaster. And in a smaller measure the Brent Pease implosion. After having Steve Spurrier as our record-smashing OC for 12 years, I had thoroughly bought in to the idea that there was a level of coordinator that was a grand slam home run hire, one who would elevate any program significantly. Even magically. And that notion was kept alive over the years when every now and then a Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen or Gus Malzahn would superficially reinforce my theory.
But I should have figured it out when Dan Mullen was the Gators’ OC. Those offenses were simply explosive and a lot of people credited Mullen as a genius, even though throughout Meyer’s tenure it was insisted that a committee of coaches created the game plan every week. When the Steve Addazio took over, it seemed to underscore how great Mullen was, but Daz really was only working with half the deck Mullen had in 2009, and then almost NO cards at all in 2010. And Mullen has gone on to build absolutely nothing of an offense at Mississippi State and he’s been at it over there for five years already.
But when the offensive genius with four Super Bowl rings came in and flopped like a gigged flounder, the Mullen-Addazio eras (and Mullen’s offensive failures at MSU) started to make a lot more sense.
I am still a big believer that the coaching makes the real difference in a football team, but I do now firmly believe two more things: (1) you can rarely make a great team (or offense or defense) out of scrap parts, and (2) difference-making OCs are as rare as a tasteful Miley Cyrus dance number.
That’s not to say that there aren’t great OCs and bad OCs, but there simply are not many genius-type guys that are going to make the kind of impact that Spurrier did. The kind of magical impact that Gator fans want Kurt Roper to make. And those that do all turn into head coaches pretty quickly anyway, so their services are never purchased, they are merely rented.
Brace For Impact
Regardless of what impact Roper has on the offense and the program in general – either short term or long – I think the one thing we should all embrace is that things are going to be good again. Maybe not immediately great or elite, but things will be fine, back to normal again in 2014. And the program will continue to grow and soon be back to elite status where it naturally belongs. And I think those are probably the most important points to take into the off-season (or at least into National Signing Day). Because no matter what level of positive impact Roper has on the incoming signing class (or those who are not incoming), the long term stability was dealt a serious lift with this hire. If UF does miss on a couple of the big play-makers on offense this February, it will be fine if this hire works out well.
Because the offense will be much different next year and the big offensive play-making studs of the class of 2015 will be sold not only on the new scheme in the premier program in the premier conference in the nation, but also on even earlier playing time than his year’s class could imagine (assuming a couple of guys don’t come to fill those depth chart spots – and even then, the enticement could very well outweigh the lure of immediate playing time). The Gators are pretty strong next year at wide receiver and running back, health willing. UF can withstand a down recruiting year at both positions this go-round. Distasteful as that would be. Where we desperately need to fill needs this year is at offensive line and tight end. We have tight end covered in spades and are just one piece away from filling our needs at OL nicely – two pieces away from slam-dunking them. Hard.
There’s A New Kid In Town
By now all of Kurt Roper’s stats at Duke and Ole Miss have been widely circulated, so I will not repeat them here. Rather, I will concentrate on what he is going to bring to the Florida program in tangible and intangible freight that has allowed him to translate his offenses and his players into such attractive statistical measures. Right off the bat, there are many things about Roper that Gator fans will simply love – both on their own merit and also of course because of their painful absence from the Gator offenses the last several seasons. Here are the biggest aspects of Roper’s coaching philosophy and personality that should stoke the fire in the bellies of every fan in Gator Nation:
Quarterback Utilization & Development: Let’s start at the top with the quarterback position. He will use both phases of Jeff Driskel’s game, much like Florida did against Vanderbilt in 2012, but far too sparingly for most of that year. Duke’s two quarterbacks were both dual-threats. Anthony Boone threw 277 passes this year and ran the ball 61 times; Brandon Connette threw the ball 145 times and carried it 99 times. If you figure just over 10% of those runs were unscripted, that is about a 3-to-1 pass-to-run ratio. I do not think we will see quite that much running from Florida quarterbacks, but it is an indication of Roper’s willingness to build the offense around its strengths. You won’t see Tebow-like utilization, but a ground-productive signal caller will be a renewed sight in the Gator offense in 2014. This will continue with Will Grier, who while being a prototype pocket passer also has very good wheels. And above all he is a quarterbacks coach, so Jeff will finally get what I would categorize as the first true college-level position coaching of his life. Roper is reputed as a good teacher in both fundamentals and the mental aspect of the game; the all-important decision-making element that has not always been the Gators’ strong suit since old Lefty left town.
Another element of the quarterback’s game that will enjoy a welcomed return to the Florida offense is the timing pattern. Think of it as a cheesy late-night commercial: “Are you tired of all your forward passes being thrown to a spot, to a stationary receiver, and never giving the wide receiver a chance to catch the ball on the run and make yards after the catch? Do you dread the heartburn of watching your quarterback hold onto the ball seemingly forever waiting for someone to get open because of the painfully simplistic and ineffective receiver routes? Well say hello to Roper Ball!” While personnel limitations certainly played a part, the passing scheme over the last two years has been pedestrian and uncreative at best and at worst, completely inept. Roper’s scheme is many things, but the most impactful element it has as far as Gator fans – and offensive production – are concerned is this: it is alive.
Downhill Running Game: The running game will be a more power-oriented spread than you see at Auburn or Oregon, and certainly more so than the water-bug-heavy spread offense under the Meyer regime. Roper’s run scheme is one that will appeal to the NFL prototype backs (fast but big and powerful) that Gator fans crave and that the SEC defenses require to pound out tough yards when the big holes aren’t there. Dalvin Cook may or may not end up signing with Florida, but Roper’s scheme is a perfect fit for Cook’s skill set and will bring in many more runners of this basic mold in the future.
Sound Fundamentals: Roper stresses pre-snap efficiency and perfection. Most coaches “stress” this as well, but Roper’s methods and focus have proven very successful at eliminating pre-snap penalties and delay penalties and eliminating the need to burn timeouts to avoid those delay penalties. The thought of this alone should send Gator fans into a knee-buckling swoon. He and long-time mentor David Cutcliffe are renowned for being gurus of clock management. This will also pay dividends in the two-minute offense. That phrase, “two-minute offense,” is a term some of the older Gator fans may remember as what is used at the end of halves to move down the field and score in a very short period of time. The Gators rarely needed it last season and rarely needed it in the latter years of the Meyer era. But it sure would have come in handy this season when two-minute drills looked more like outtakes from a Keystone Kops movie. Or they were simply left on the shelf, as taking a knee to end the first half was usually a much higher percentage scoring strategy than trying to throw the ball down field. Roper is also a big proponent of ball security, having as one of his mantras that they end every offensive play with the ball.
Not only will there be a lot of quality teaching in practices under Roper, the up-tempo style he brings to the offensive scheme, he also brings to the practice field. He and Cutcliffe developed another mantra for practice time: treat the ground like a hot stove. Meaning, when you get tackled or fall down, you better be on your feet in an eye blink or you are going to get a facemask full of Coach Kurt. Not only does this increase the urgency and the stamina of the players, it literally creates more practice time. The NCAA limits practice by the clock, not the plays or reps. The less time players spend on the carpet, the more reps they get. And like the last offensive coordinator to come to Florida from Duke – Steve Spurrier – Roper is a big proponent of the quality of repetition. Spurrier once told me that one of the best coaches on his staff was repetition. Roper is a student of that philosophy as well, and for positions such as along the offensive line, this will be a very welcome addition.
Flexibility: When Urban Meyer took over at Florida, knowing that the personnel were not well-suited for his preferred spread-option, Meyer was fond of saying that “there was no offense.” That the offense was whatever the personnel would dictate it to be. Well, in 2005-2006, he and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen did a pretty good job at following that creed, but those of us who remember the painful visions of Chris Leak trying to run the option – we know that they often could not help themselves but to force the scheme on the ill-suited personnel. Roper will take the same approach, only he is not claiming there is no offense. He has an offense. A multifaceted, multidimensional offense that can be adapted to any number of personnel dictates. The good news is that he inherits a great dual-threat quarterback who has run for even more yards on the read option play at Florida that Heisman legend Tebow. The offensive line is a different story, but in this case the youth may serve as a blessing. They have not had years of a conflicting blocking schemes and offensive schemes drilled into their heads (or like the poor departing seniors, several years of several different schemes). Assessing the strength of the quarterback and linemen is his stated first goal of spring so that he can quickly go about designing the new offense.
At this point Gator fans are no doubt becoming queasy because it is somewhat impossible to believe that installing a new offense can be done in time for the 2014 season opener, let alone early enough for it to be of any practical development in Spring practice. But Roper says that it won’t take very long to implement the new scheme. If true, that certainly is a new tune to be sung around Gainesville after the last two offensive coordinators, and sweet music to fans’ ears.
Intensity: This will be short and sweet. No more Pease-tempo at practices. No more sleepy-eyed offensive players looking for the alarm clock to wake up at halftime. No more 60 minute lack of urgency every Saturday. No more conflicting contrast between a high-intensity head coach and a Prince Valium offensive coordinator spilling into a culture clash amongst the players. No more cockamamie cigar smoke. No more Swedish meatballs there, tootsie. And no more phony Irish whiskey. No more damn jerky beef! The yawning party’s over.
Familiarity: He has been coaching in SEC territory, and at SEC schools, for a long time. He knows SEC competition, SEC intensity, SEC defensive complexity and SEC recruiting. Before being a huge part of turning Duke into a winner and claiming its first conference hardware since Steve Spurrier was the head coach, he coached at Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee. He has been through the SEC battles time and again and built up an impressive record developing players and offenses (and winning ball games) everywhere he has gone. He has direct staff familiarity, having worked with Joker Phillips while they were both at Kentucky. He is not coming off a career spent on the other side of the country, and he is not an aloof NFL legend who has had no real success in the college game.
He is, quite possibly, just about the best fit for the position in this point in time. Time will tell, but it is already very apparent that Gator fans are more excited to see it unfold than they have been in quite a long time.