After Scottie Montgomery left to become the head coach at East Carolina last month, the Blue Devils hired a member of their own family to assume Montgomery’s role as offensive coordinator.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe announced Jan. 8 that Zac Roper—who had been the special teams coordinator for the past three seasons while also working with the tight ends—will become the Blue Devils’ next offensive coordinator. Roper joined the Duke program as a running backs coach in Jan. 2008, but his relationship with Cutcliffe goes back to 1999, when Cutcliffe was the head coach at Mississippi and Roper worked with the tight ends, placekickers and wide receivers as a graduate administrative aide and graduate assistant coach.
Cutcliffe said during a teleconference that making an internal hire like Roper was a big factor in maintaining consistency in the way his staff approaches things and keeping the camaraderie the program has built together during the past several seasons.
“The continuity part does play in. We’re very value-driven. Those values are not going to ever be compromised here. I know that Zac has that value system in place, and we’re always striving to grow and to think,” Cutcliffe said. “When I let the folks inside know that Zac was going to be the hire, there was this eruption of emotion, of joy, and I know he felt that, and I felt that.”
Although Roper can call himself part of the Duke football family, the Roper family has an extensive background in football as well. Roper’s brother, Kurt, served as Cutcliffe’s offensive coordinator from 2008-13 before departing for Florida, and is now the offensive coordinator at South Carolina.
Just before New Years, Zac Roper tweeted out a picture of his seven-year-old son, Joshua, watching football with his grandfather—a picture that underscored the strong bond football holds in the Roper bloodline, even before the news of Zac’s promotion came.
“I sent out a picture a couple of days ago where I was back home with my parents and my son, who’s seven, was sitting with his grandfather who was a long-time coach,” Roper said. “My son, at seven, was already eating up the football and I just thought it was a pretty applicable picture of the original.”
The next generation of a Roper football coach sitting with the original coach Roper...of course watching football pic.twitter.com/LdNGRDoPsF— Zac Roper (@CoachZRoper) December 31, 2015
Zac and Kurt worked together at Mississippi for six years from 1999-2004, before Kurt left to become the quarterbacks coach at Kentucky and Zac departed for Cornell to work with the running backs, tight ends and special teams units. Along with his new offensive coordinator duties, Zac will also be tabbed with coaching the Blue Devil quarterbacks—both signal-callers who saw significant playing time this season, Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme, are set to return in the fall.
During his time in Durham, Kurt oversaw three different quarterbacks who tossed for 3,000 yards in a season, and his last offense at Duke produced a then-school record 410 points. Montgomery’s offense scored exactly the same number of points this season—good for a 31.5 points per game average—but eclipsed that mark in both 2013 and 2014.
On a teleconference with reporters, Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils will look to find more success throwing the deep ball next season, which could create a big role for speedster T.J. Rahming and big target Anthony Nash. Duke must replace starting running back Shaquille Powell, but should still have plenty of depth in the backfield in 2016, led by Shaun Wilson—who electrified the Blue Devil offense in this year’s Pinstripe Bowl victory with two long touchdowns and shared co-MVP honors with Sirk—and Jela Duncan.
Although this will be Zac’s first time calling offensive plays, he has Kurt to look to for advice, and said he has already picked up several pointers from his older brother.
“Being with my brother Kurt for six years at University of Mississippi and the six years here at Duke, certainly you pick up a lot of things at the quarterback position and offensively in general, and certainly on how to train quarterbacks, but also how to produce offenses that are explosive but also don’t beat themselves,” Roper said. “Certainly, you’ve got to get yards and points and those things, but we’re going to do things and continue to do things here offensively, that we don’t beat ourselves, first and foremost.”
Zac said that the brothers’ father, Scott, was a defensive coach, and that knowledge on the other side of the ball—coupled with Zac’s own experiences with the Big Red cornerbacks in 2007—helped him form a base of coaching that spanned all three phases of the game. Cutcliffe noted that Roper’s experience on both sides of the ball, plus his work on special teams, made him an extremely well-rounded candidate, which he said was a huge positive in his favor.
“Even though my dad was a defensive coach, I picked up a lot of the foundational things that Scott has tried to coach on the practice field on a daily basis. One of the things that he used to say all the time that I still carry with us is ‘We’ve got to start with getting the right 11 people on the field, and we’ve got to end the play with the football.’
Duke’s special teams flourished under Roper, highlighted by the explosive kickoff return skills of DeVon Edwards. The Covinginton, Ga., native returned three kicks for touchdowns in 2015, bringing his career total to six. Roper also worked with kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday, as the duo earned four All-ACC accolades apiece in their careers.
Cutcliffe praised Roper’s work as special teams coordinator, and said that the variety of authoritative tasks he was put in charge of in that role should help him transition to running the offense.
“When you are the coordinator of special teams, you’re working with players on both sides of the ball. You’re not a positional coach, you’re the head coach of all of those players. When you walk into a special teams meeting, it looks like a full team meeting,” Cutcliffe said. “You’ve got to motivate all of those people on both sides of the ball, you’ve got to make personnel decisions, you’ve got schematic decisions to make, practice decisions, practice planning, meeting planning. It’s a really unique circumstance, and that’s why I referred to that as such a great growing ground for some of the best football coaches I’ve ever been around.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.