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.
By Justin Roper with Mike Kuchar
University of Northern Iowa
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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.
MK: You transitioned from a pure Air Raid system into more of a spread system. What were some of the challenges you encountered?
JR: “There are some similarities between Spread and Air Raid personnel. For example, both want athletic offensive linemen and prefer skill players that can win in space. However, I have seen the difference at least here at Slippery Rock in the versatility of players. When I arrived, our skill personnel were much smaller and quicker to make people miss in space, which is a desirable trait. I wanted guys in the slot and running back positions that can do multiple things or I want different types of players within those positions. I like versatility or variety of quick, elusive running backs and 1-2 bigger, powerful ones, and a couple small, quick slots for the bubble game and longer, more physical slots for blocking and downfield threats.
The most important difference, however comes at the Tight End position. I want to be a base 11 personnel team rather than the prototypical 10 for most Air Raid teams. I want a tight end that can play in-line, off the ball (H-Back), and split out. That’s a rare skill set and brings unbelievable versatility to your offense. It allows you to change personnel and formational looks without having to substitute.”
MK: How do you decide to group concepts in your offensive system?
JR: “For example, the spread system is a big time screen system. When I got there the staff didn’t run a decent amount of them. We also used sprint out as well. The basis of the system is categorizing words. Quick passes are colors, etc. Drop backs are these types of words, etc. Yellow is right, red is run, etc. We took that theme and extended it to what we were installing. All sprint outs might have been hotels. That part is not hard. The scheme and teaching are most difficult. What helps is that if you’re not hung up on what you call things. There is a reason on why you call something. We don’t want to have 15 categories in our play menu. The way we do thing run game is inside runs and outside runs. Within those sub categories we will have five or six inside runs. We want to run trap and power as well with one more pull scheme like tackle wrap. Pick the four five we are going to use and if we’re going to add one, we talk another one out. Boil things down to your most needed concept.”
MK: How do you combine formation categories based on personnel? How are they labeled in your system?
JR: “You just want to have three or four base formations with little tags that adjust. We have a base 2x2, base 3x1 and base 2x1 for two back with one word tags. If you want to adjust the receivers to stack or move the tight end, you just have one signal for that. If you can find a way to have one signal for each thing, it’s going to condense the signals a lot. If you can cut down the number of signals by formation, you will get to your play concept quicker. If your trips right call is three fingers to the right, it doesn’t take much. If you’re going to be more complicated, let’s cut those down. You can find words that will help cut down on signals. Easier to have one signal for each of those formations. The more simplified you can make your terminology.”
MK: You mention that it’s important not to overload your system in too many categories. In your opinion, what is the ideal number of personnel groupings, formations, motions and concepts that can be absorbed in a tempo offense?
JR: “I think you only need two base personnel groupings and 1-2 game plan specific ones. Your base change would be 20 personnel or Empty so you run that. That way you only have two or three names to come up with. That ties into formations. You’re not going to be able to run 15 formations. The more formations you have, the longer it takes to make play calls and signals. If you want to be multiple, you risk speed and maybe efficiency. One word tags can adjust running backs in the backfield or tight ends on or off the ball. Motions and shifts are the easiest way to bring flexibility in this system. Take three or four motions that you want to use. Here, they would have a word for each motion for that particular player- whether it’s the Y, H or Z. For me, I wanted to have just four motion types and tag who is running it. You’re adding one more signal but it’s a letter which doesn’t take too long. You’re also cutting down 80 percent of the words, names and signals that they are going to learn. Find your three favorite shifts or motions and just tag who does it. It’s a schematic based thing. The run game is predicated on your identity, whether you’re a base zone team, outside zone or mid zone. You’ll need to have 1-2 changeups based on pull schemes. You have your identify and you don’t make it too complicated. Then you have 2-3 pull schemes. If you’re a quick pass game, take your top two or three.”
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- One of the first things he did to keep offensive continuity as the only new addition to the staff.
- How he made a seamless transition from an Air Raid offense to a 10-personnel spread system and the selection process he used to pick the right concepts around the personnel he inherited.
- How he was able to combine verbiage between the two systems to assist in the learning curve of players.
- The process he uses on deciding whether to keep a scheme or eliminate it entirely from the system.
- Why he only needed two base personnel groupings to play at a faster tempo.
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Taking over a new offense has several challenges in itself, particularly when the program was successful. If you focus on three things: evaluating personnel, selecting concepts and your communication system, success will usually follow.
Meet Coach Roper: Roper is not a stranger to FCS Football. He spent his final two years as a player at the University of Montana where he played for the Grizzlies in their run to the 2009 FCS title game. Before his time at Montana, he played for Oregon and still holds the record for passing touchdowns in the Sun Bowl where he threw four touchdowns to lead the Ducks to the win in 2007.
His coaching resume started from the ground up. He began his career at the University of Findlay (Ohio) where he was the running backs coach as a graduate assistant for the 2013 season before being hired at DII power Valdosta State for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. He moved to Slippery Rock before the 2016 season. He coached a pair of All-PSAC honorees at the quarterback position. Roland Rivers III earned first-team honors in 2018 and Tanner Garry was named to the second team in 2017. At Valdosta State, his teams earned trips to the DII playoffs in both seasons. During 2015, the offense averaged 422.1 yards and 36.2 points per game and quarterbacks tossed for 2,971 yards and 28 touchdowns.