Florida is coming off a nightmare season, where the Gators--ranked preseason No. 10 in the Coaches Poll--finished 4-8 (their worse year since 1979) and Will Muschamp canned his offensive coordinator and his O-line coach. The injury-riddled Gators O ranked last in the SEC in total offense and scoring, ranking No. 110 nationally with a 4.79 yards per play average. Making matters worse for UF, the horrible season occurred the same year as arch-rival FSU won the BCS National Title. Muschamp made a big move, hiring Duke's Kurt Roper, a David Cutcliffe protege, as UF's new offensive coordinator. Roper, the Blue Devils' playcaller, helped Duke to a school-record 10-win season and a spot in the ACC title game in 2013. He also has helped develop Eli Manning at Ole Miss and later turned Thad Lewis into an NFL quarterback and Sean Renfree into a draft pick. His next project: Jeff Driskel and putting a jolt into the listless Gator offense. I sat down with Roper to talk about, among other things, his plan for Driskel, what he stresses most as part of his system and how he goes about making changes.
Q: Yours in the latest system for Jeff Driskel. He committed to play for (Urban) and then it's been playing in Charlie Weis' system. Then, Brent Pease. Now, you're coaching him. How has Jeff Driskel been doing with the transition?
Roper: He did really good. He's talented. I mean he is a really physically gifted football player and he's played enough football now that the speed of game is not shocking him. I think once he got to the point where he got comfortable with our offense, he was making pretty good, fast decisions.
For me, it was a lot like when I got Thad Lewis at Duke. Thad had already gone through Billy O'Brien at Duke for a year and then gone through Peter Vaas for a year. Then, I came in. Those things are helpful because they can draw from their experiences and there's so much similarity in plays, so once they can correlate it to a play that they've run in the past, it helps 'em pick it up faster. And because of their experiences, they've gone through so many meetings and conversations about coverages or plays or whatever, they've had so many reps on the practice field and just playing at the speed of the game, even though everything is different, those reps help them transition with a new offense.
Q: Besides his obvious physical size, what really stands out that impresses you about Driskel's talent?
Roper: He has everything physically. He does have great size, but he can really run. He's a fast guy. He can start quickly. He can change direction. His top-end speed is really good for a quarterback. He has a really good arm. He's accurate. I like his throwing motion. It's fast-twitch. He possesses everything.
His touch throws and his down-the-field throws are our focus fundamentally right now. If you were building a quarterback, you'd start with what this guy has.
Q: What do you tweak mechanically when it comes to the deep ball or the touch throws?
Roper: With the touch throws, you gotta feel it come out of your fingers more. It's almost like he's not feeling it roll off his index finger enough. What I'm trying to get him to do, is on touch throws, get him up a little bit more on his toes and really feel it come out of his fingers, so it's less arm and more fingers. On the down-the-field throws, it's the same thing. When you finish, you have to finish a little bit higher with your release and feel it come off your fingers to control the amount of air. A lot of guys will throw it too flat. That's what happens when they try to over-throw it or try to strong-arm it. He needs more touch, more fingers on both those types of throws.
Q: I know you guys really evolved scheme-wise. How different is what you guys are bringing compared to what Driskel committed to when Urban Meyer was here?
Roper: I've never studied Urban's offense as far as all the intricacies of it outside of both of the quarterbacks are in the gun and the quarterback is more part of the run equation. The biggest similarity is that you're not compact in your formations. You're spread to make defenses defend the field and the quarterback is in gun, which allows him to be in the run game so much more. That's the similarity. But as far as the pass game, we're doing the same pass game that we taught Eli Manning and that Coach (David Cutcliffe) Cut taught Peyton Manning at Tennessee. It's just from different formations even though they're the same concepts. The way I like to describe it is we're a spread run team, but a pro-style passing team. And I think this guy can do it.
I think one of the unfair labels this guy gets in this deal is they say he fits this offense better. I think anytime you can utilize a quarterback's ability to run that's a plus in college football.
I think it all gets down to teaching a guy decision-making. There's a perception out there that this guy couldn't transition to a Pro-Style or pro game. I don't see that. I think this guy is really talented and can play this game for a long time. The only difference is that we're going to let him run the football some.
Peyton Manning is a Pro-Style quarterback, right? How much is he underneath the center? What this gets down to is, it's all about teaching a guy how to make decisions. It's all about teaching a guy who to get the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. And I think that's what this system is letting him do in the pass game. If you watch the pro game, it's mimicking the college game a little bit more in formations, spreading the field. They're just not running the quarterback really, but how many people are in there with tight ends and two backs and all that? The really good ones--the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys, Drew Brees, they're in gun, spread sets and throwing the ball.
Q: So, how, specifically, do you teach your quarterbacks decision-making?
Roper: The first thing they gotta understand is the amount of time that they're working with. We try to work under three seconds in decision-making. We're trying to play fast. Once they understand that, 'O.K., this is the time,' then we tie that time to their feet. And, after they've gone through what I call 'gathers' which other people call hitches, well, once they've hitched a third time, that ball better be gone. They'd better have made a decision and the ball's out. If not, you've got to throw it away or you've got to run with it. That's how you do it. You build a passing game that can get the ball out immediately. If you're not building a passing game that can get the ball out immediately, then you're going to hold on to the ball more and you're gonna have some problems.
Now, there are going to be some times where we're going to try and hold onto the ball longer when we're trying to play-action and get something down the field, but you can't major in that. You gotta major in getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand. Make a decision and get it gone.
Q: Would you have a stopwatch on him at all times in practice so that he hears it and gets used to it?
Roper: When I get in the film-room with them, that's when we count. We'll sit there and I'll just count, 'Thousand-one, thousand-two, BALL!' And if he's not getting it out and we're getting to thousand-three, then you can see it and say, 'Hey, this isn't going to work when we get to our real-live situations.' But really, what you're doing is you watch the film and you watch their feet, and once they've gathered that third time, if they haven't made a decision than they've held onto it too long.
But would I stand behind them during 7-on-7 with a clock or a horn? No. I'm backing there hollering, 'BALL! Get it out!'
When I was at Kentucky with Coach (Rich) Brooks, he made us put a clock on 'em with a horn. We came into a meeting and Coach Brooks was like, 'We need a horn that tells 'em the play's over.' Well, Cut had trained me pretty good, we don't hold onto the ball. I said, 'Hey Coach Brooks, we're not gonna need a horn. I promise you. We'll get it out.'
He said, 'Dammit, I said I WANT A HORN! I WANT A HORN!'
I said, 'Yessir, we'll have a horn. What do you want me to set that time on?' He goes, 'Um, four seconds.' I said, 'OK.' And I was fine with that 'cause I knew there were a lot of times where we threw it within two seconds and that horn would go off and we were already back in the huddle. That's what I want those guys to understand how fast we gotta play. That's why I'm back there hollering, 'BALL! MAKE A DECISION! GET IT OUT! RUN!' I guess I am the horn.
Q: You wanted Driskel to lose 15 pounds?
Roper: When I first got here, he was 240. I said, 'Hey, what do you think a good weight for you is?' He said carrying to 240 wasn't a problem.
I said, 'Why don't we get to 230 and see what 230 looks like and then we'll make a decision.' If he's below 235, I'm good. I think he got down to 227 at some point this spring. The reason I think is if you're gonna be able to run the football, I think you've gotta start quickly and change direction, so I wanted to see what 10 pounds less would do. And 230 is plenty big enough.
Q: Of all the quarterbacks you've been around, skill set wise, who does Driskel remind you of?
Roper: That's a good question.
Q: Were you ever around Heath Shuler?
Roper: No, I wasn't, but I bet that's a pretty fair comparison. He's that athletic and fast-twitch and that powerful of an athlete. He's a freak athlete. He walks in the room, and you go, 'Damn!' And then you see him run and you go, 'Damn!' He's different than Eli. He's not like Sean Renfree. Thad is more of a drop-back guy that can run. Thad's more of a 4.8 guy.
Q: What about Tee (Martin)?
Roper: Tee could really run. He's probably a fair comparison to Jeff. I was around Tee (at Tennessee), but I was on defense then. Tee would be a very fair comparison. If Tee Martin would've played in this 'run-the-quarterback stuff' it would've been a sight to see. Jeff has that skill set.
Q: One the UF staffers I knew raved about Driskel going into last season--strong arm, good speed, smart, super tough, good leader. What was missing with him before?
Roper: I don't really know because I wasn't here. I do think there was an unfair critique of him because he didn't play very long. He played in part of three games, and in that last game, his last play was a pick-6, and he had a couple of picks in the Miami game.
I think people almost apply the whole season to him and he wasn't there. I think if he was there for the whole season, I do think you're looking at a different year for Florida and to be honest with you, I'm probably not here.
Q: How have your receivers looked?
Roper: We're talented at receiver. We 've got some guys that can run and make plays. We've just go to keep throwing and catching. For so long here they were in two-backs and a tight end, and all they would play was two wide receivers. We just need a ton of throwing and catching together. They haven't played in these formations as much as we're using them.
Q: What was the most pleasant surprise you had this spring?
Roper: We've got some guys up front that that are pretty good. We've just got to stay healthy because we're not loaded with numbers, but our starting five is pretty talented.