When Duke coach David Cutcliffe announced internally that Zac Roper had been promoted to associate head coach and offensive coordinator, there was an eruption of joy, he said. Roper has been at Duke since Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, and for the past three years, he had been known for his energy and enthusiasm as special teams coordinator.
Cutcliffe announced the move publicly Friday. Roper will also coach quarterbacks, just like Cutcliffe’s other offensive coordinators at Duke (Scottie Montgomery and Kurt Roper) did, too. Roper replaces Montgomery, who took the head coaching job at East Carolina last month.
“The first question I asked coach Roper, without telling him some of my thoughts, is ‘What makes us better? What do you see?,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “I said, ‘You’ve been respectful of leadership here, but what do you see that makes us better, what are some things that we need to address?’ And I loved his thoughts. They weren’t just brand new. He’s a veteran coach, and he brought that to the table.”
The one specific offensive element Cutcliffe addressed was downfield passing. The Blue Devils ranked tied for ninth in the 14-team ACC with 36 completions for 20 or more yards in 2015, as starting quarterback Thomas Sirk struggled to hit open receivers downfield consistently. Sirk returns for his senior year next season, and he is expected to be ready for spring practice after suffering an MCL sprain in Duke’s overtime win over Indiana in the Dec. 26 Pinstripe Bowl.
“I thought we would be much better going into the bowl game, and it didn’t happen, of being more successful with the ball downfield,” Cutcliffe said. “We were just maybe inches away from getting that done, and we are going to get that done. Zac and I are both excited about that opportunity.”
Roper is the younger brother of former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who held the position from 2008-2013. After Duke’s 10-4, Coastal Division-winning season, Kurt Roper joined Will Muschamp’s staff at Florida. He became Muschamp’s offensive coordinator at South Carolina this month.
Roper said he learned much of his offensive philosophy from his brother, a former Rice quarterback. The brothers were on Cutcliffe’s staff together for four years at Ole Miss and six years at Duke.
“Certainly you pick up a lot of things at the quarterback position and offensively in general,” Roper said. “Certainly on how to train quarterbacks and also on how to produce explosive offenses that don’t beat themselves.”
As the special teams coordinator, Roper was responsible for kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, extra points, field goals and extra point and field goal blocks. He worked with players on both sides of the ball – pretty much every group of players but quarterbacks. As a coordinator, he’s used to working closely with Cutcliffe, which gives Cutcliffe confidence that the partnership will be good for Duke’s offense.
“When you walk into a special teams meeting, it looks like a team meeting,” Cutcliffe said. “You’ve got to motivate all of the people on both sides of the ball, you’ve got personal decisions, you’ve got schematic decisions to make, practice decisions, practice plans, meeting plans, it’s a really unique circumstance.”
Cutcliffe still needs to hire or promote a tight ends coach and special teams coordinator to fill Roper’s former job. Another staff member will have to take on Roper’s responsibility as recruiting coordinator, too. On the administrative side, the director of football operations, Terrell Smith, and assistant director of player personnel Ethan Johnson joined Montgomery’s staff at East Carolina. Johnson’s role is being filled internally by James Harrell, and Harrell’s job as player personnel coordinator is being filled internally by sports performance assistant Lex Butler.
Because of the reshuffling and transitioning, Cutcliffe said Duke won’t start spring practice in early February as it has in years past. It will give him and the rest of the staff time to review every facet of the program.
“Before we take the practice field again, I want to look at, from an attention to detail standpoint, everything we’re teaching, everything we’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll see how the calendar can work in our favor.”