On Dec. 22, Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper arranged to interview for Florida’s open offensive coordinator position the next day, and he flew to Gainesville on the 23rd. Before the day ended on the 24th, he was hired as the Gators’ new offensive coordinator.
“Everything happened pretty fast,” he said.
Roper has coached quarterbacks for every staff David Cutcliffe has ever put together. He went with him to Mississippi when Cutcliffe took over after the 1998 national championship season at Tennessee. Roper followed him from Tennessee when Cutcliffe took the Duke job in 2008.
Roper will coach at Duke through Tuesday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M, saying “I’ve got a week to focus on and be my best for these guys one last time.”
After that, he will be off to Florida, where he will earn $600,000 a year in base salary, according to the Gainesville Sun. Roper said it was the right opportunity at the right time, and added that he and Florida coach Will Muschamp have visions of competing for championships.
“Kurt and I have been together a long time,” Cutcliffe said Thursday. “I’m very appreciative of all of his contributions, at Tennessee, Ole Miss and certainly here at Duke through the years. It has been an enjoyable professional relationship.” he said.
Cutcliffe added he’s known Roper for most of his adult life, watched him get married and welcome two children.
Muschamp contacted Cutcliffe early in the week, he said, and let him know he was talking with Roper. Cutcliffe didn’t encourage his longtime assistant to leave, he said, but he wished him well.
“I certainly want our coaches to go where their heart leads them. Kurt had a job here and would have continued to have a job,” Cutcliffe said. “This is an opportunity for him to be out somewhat on his own. He’s looking forward to it.”
As far as thinking about how to replace Roper, Cutcliffe preemptively shut down any questions about that topic, saying he wouldn’t even begin to think about that until after the bowl.
After dropping everything during finals week to go home to California, where his mother was having emergency brain surgery, Duke backup quarterback Brandon Connette rejoined the team in Atlanta on Christmas night. His mother is still in critical, but stable, condition, Cutcliffe said.
“Brandon had to come to grips, it was a very emotional decision for him,” Cutcliffe said of the decision to leave California and rejoin the team. “It’s going to be good therapy for him, he was good at practice today. … I think it felt good to be back around his Duke football family.”
Connette was not forgotten while he was gone. Duke’s starting quarterback, Anthony Boone, gathered Connette’s stuff in Durham and took it to Atlanta.
Boone and Connette have led the No. 22 Blue Devils (10-3) to the most wins in school history. Connette started three games while Boone was out with a broken collarbone, and he continued to have a role in the offense after Boone returned.
Connette has rushed for a team-high 13 touchdowns, as he excels in short yardage situations (he has 333 rushing yards on 99 attempts, an average of 3.4 yards per carry).
Additionally, Connette has completed 62.1 percent of his passes, going 90-for-145 for 1,212 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions. Boone has completed 63.9 percent of his passes (177-of-277) for 1,833 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with an additional 187 yards on the ground with four rushing touchdowns.
Cutcliffe addressed running back Jela Duncan’s year-long suspension for the first time. Duncan was suspended for the bowl and through the 2014 season for a violation of university academic policy.
Duncan, a sophomore, has been Duke’s leading rusher the past two seasons, and he gained 562 yards on 113 carries (5.0 yards per touch) this season.
“He’s going to take a year and get himself ready mentally and physically,” Cutcliffe said. “There are some things he has to address from a standpoint of rehab and health, but mostly it will be getting ready to return to school full speed.
“I have 1,000 percent confidence in him that he will use this time well. He’s a part of our family. He needs to use this time well to come back a better product emotionally and physically than he was. He’s got to take that part seriously. He and I will talk often, because I don’t expect him to have to deal with this emotionally alone. It’s a great opportunity to grow for him.”
Duncan will have two years of eligibility remaining when he returns for the spring 2015 semester. In the meantime, sophomore Shaquille Powell, junior Josh Snead and senior Juwan Thompson, along with Connette, will handle the running game for Duke.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley