University of Northern Iowa
Editor’s Note: At the time of this interview, Coach Roper was in his third year as the offensive coordinator at Slippery Rock University (PA). After a 2018 season that has produced an 11-3 record and a trip to the Division 2 quarterfinals, Coach Roper has now been appointed as the quarterback’s coach at Northern Iowa University
Justin Roper had big shoes to fill when he first arrived at Slippery Rock University in 2016, the “Rock” was coming off a year where it averaged 45 points and over 600 yards per game under the direction of then offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Coach Longo, now the offensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina, set up an Air Raid system and when Coach Roper took over, he was the only new face on the staff. Coach Roper’s dad Brad coached at Georgia Tech in the 90’s and Justin had only been a position coach for two years at Valdosta State University before being named an offensive coordinator. This was a challenge in itself and Coach Roper put the onus on himself to learn the already established terminology rather than create his own.
“We were going from an Air Raid based offense to a spread based system,” he told us. “You organize your priorities in what is important. What we called things is not important. That doesn’t matter. What is important is how routes are run and what are we trying to accomplish. That stuff I can tweak to my liking while keeping the base structure the same. The teaching and the purpose of teaching is the same thing.”
MK: Describe the process you use when evaluating the incoming talent when taking over a program.
JR: “I watched the entire previous season straight through with no cutups without the other staff because what I wanted to find the pure identity of what that offense was. I researched what they did really well? What were the weaknesses? What that allows you to do is I can sense what they were really good or bad at rather than think what they were good or bad at. I noticed our wide receivers were the best blockers I’ve ever seen. That’s an unbelievable strength. Then when you talk to your staff about how they use their positions and the talent that is returning. Then your morph that into how you want to use them. You understand the positives and negatives of what you have. The next step is to talk to the staff about the positives and negatives of what they think they have and then you see what matches up.
I think it’s important to let your staff teach you what they did well the season before. I’ll first stress our identity, which is to play fast and execute. From there, I asked position coaches to teach me how they taught the run game. This does two things: one, it gives you the ability to assess their talent to convey information as coaches and two it lets you understand how things were communicated to the players and what needs to be kept the same or what you can adjust. It also provides ownership to the coaches. You might have the inclination to say ‘I want to do things this way and the success is warranted, but I can’t beat people over the head telling them what I want to do. Listen to what they did so they feel that they have been heard. But make it known that l has the overriding say on things.”
MK: After assessing the personnel, how do you go about fitting your scheme around that personnel? Is this a selection process of which concepts should be utilized with that personnel?
JR: “I was going from an Air Raid to a spread system. The basis of the system that I was taking over was one that valued quickness and making people miss in open space over anything else. All the running backs were smaller- 5’7 and the slots were 5-8 or 5-9 that were really good at making people miss in space. The Air Raid system was all set up to be receiver friendly. Not sure how many of them played QB. What I do in a spread system, everything is based on the QB read. Because that is the hardest thing. I base everything on spots on the field and we read defenders, not necessarily a progression. We read defender to defender. The receivers just get to a spot on time. We tell those receivers to get to the spot any way they can. It gives receivers more freedom and lets the quarterback understand what the defense is doing. We read defenders eyes, intent and body language.