When Will Muschamp took the helm of the South Carolina program, one of his key hires was Kurt Roper. Roper will be tasked with not only reviving an offense that only averaged 21.9 points a game (18th worst in FBS), but working with Muschamp in finding the quarterback that will hopefully put them on track to eventually winning football games once more. While Muschamp has shown grave concern with the team’s situation on defense, primarily the backfield/secondary, he can take heart knowing that in Roper, he has a coach on his staff that has a proven track record in developing quarterbacks. Let’s take a look.
From 1996 to 1998, Roper was a grad assistant at Tennessee, where a quarterback from New Orleans by the name of Peyton Manning - whose position coach was David Cutcliffe - was laying the groundwork for what would eventually be a legendary NFL career. Peyton’s brother, Eli, decided to attend Ole Miss despite the magnificent pressure to even come close to what their father, Archie, did decades ago. Enter Roper, who followed Cutcliffe to Oxford after the latter was hired from Tennessee as Tommy Tuberville’s replacement. All Eli did was throw for over 10,000 yards and 81 touchdowns during his career from 2000-2003. The capstone was in his senior season, when Manning racked up 3600 yards passing and 29 touchdowns (both tops in the SEC) en route to a season where he finished third in the Heisman voting. Roper’s first QB project? A resounding success. And as further proof that winning the Heisman doesn’t guarantee anything at the next level, Manning (who finished 3rd in voting that year) and Pitt’s Larry Fitzgerald (the second place finisher) went on to have overwhelmingly more successful NFL careers than that year’s winner, Oklahoma signal-caller Jason White (who never played a down professionally due to knee issues).
I suppose that I should drop a disclaimer that I’ve been a Buffalo Bills fan for going on two decades (Lewis played for the Bills in 2013 and was...well...decent), so I was a little surprised to see that Roper was Lewis’ OC in college. While his production dipped a little yardage-wise from 2007, he went down from 10 interceptions that year to just six in 2008 - in 361 passing attempts. That’s just over one per 60 PAs, which isn’t bad considering that he threw 16 interceptions in 2006, under a previous regime and during a season that saw the Blue Devils go 0-12. (They went 1-11 the next year. Improvement!)
You do have to credit Roper and Cutcliffe in sticking with Lewis when they came on board in 2008, and it paid off as Lewis threw for 3,330 yards and 20 touchdowns in his senior season in 2009. While they finished 5-7 that year, let’s not forget that the Blue Devils were downright dreadful before Cutcliffe took the helm.
Renfree is a little bit of an interesting case because he threw 17 picks in 2010 - his first year as the team’s starter. But part of that was because he was passing the ball so much (37 or more times in eight of 12 games, with 41, 44, 49 and 56 PA games to his credit) and part was because five of those came against Miami (Fla.). Take that away, and that would give him just 12 for the year, which isn’t too bad at all. He rounded into form as a senior in 2012 as he completed 67.3% of his passes, threw for 3,113 yards (18 short of his career high in 2010), and added 19 touchdowns. More importantly, his INTs dropped to just 10 as a senior.
Boone and Connette
Now here’s a little bit of a wildcard. I can’t overlook the 2013 season in which the Blue Devils rolled with two quarterbacks - Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette - and ended up 10-4 (6-2 ACC), winning the Coastal Division for the first time in program history. Combined, Boone and Connette threw for 3,472 yards and 26 TDs. This is an interesting case in that Connette was heavily utilized as a Wildcat QB and as a rushing option, playing to his dual threat strengths - ending the season with 14 touchdowns on the ground. While it’s nowhere near what Navy QB Keenan Reynolds did (31 rushing TDs, tops in FBS), Connette was tied for ninth with all players nationally in that department.
While Duke was slaughtered by Jameis Winston and eventual BCS champs Florida State in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte that season, this was a program that won just three games from 2005 to 2007! Roper deserves significant credit for transforming the Duke program from a laughingstock to Coastal Division contender.
That brings us to Florida. Why didn’t things work out in Gainesville for Roper? The case can be made - and has been made - that it was less of Roper failing and more of the team struggling to adapt to yet another offensive philosophy that started with Charlie Weis, then shifted to Brent Pease, and finally ended with Roper. Much of it can be attributed to Will Muschamp’s handling of the QB position, an area that I feel that he has taken ownership of more than enough times leading up to the season. Jeff Driskel ended up transferring and absolutely flourished at Louisiana Tech, but it would be hard to place the blame of his regression on Roper’s shoulders.
Roper’s body of work speaks for itself. At South Carolina, he enters a situation where he has to decide between a true freshman with tremendous upside - Brandon McIlwain - and a redshirt senior and former walk-on in Perry Orth who, despite his lack of success, is the veteran option. I don’t doubt that McIlwain will pan out, but if the team does choose Orth, he will at least be under the tutelage of a man who has had past success in developing quarterbacks. This is a position that the team can’t afford to get wrong. Fortunately, in Roper, the Gamecocks have someone on staff who has a history of getting it right.