Duke football is turning to the same family for a second time.
The Blue Devils turned to Kurt Roper for offensive play selection from 2008 through 2013. That member of the Ropers then became Will Muschamp's offensive coordinator at Florida (in 2014) and this past offseason at South Carolina. Kurt Roper spent the 2015 season -- between Muschamp stops in the SEC -- on the staff of the Cleveland Browns. He enjoyed stability at Duke (more on that as we go along), but wanted to test himself in far bigger cauldrons of pressure. His body of work certainly enhanced Duke's football program, but the jury is still out in terms of his ability to call plays and scheme against elite defenses at an elevated level of competition.
When Kurt Roper left, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe turned to his then-wide receiver coach, Scottie Montgomery. For the past two seasons, Montgomery shepherded the Blue Devils to two more bowl appearances in this prosperous period for the program. Montgomery made enough of an impression -- guiding Duke to its first bowl win since 1961 -- to land the head coaching job at East Carolina after Ruffin McNeill was curiously fired despite doing a relatively good job in Greenville, North Carolina.
What was noteworthy about Cutcliffe's choice of Montgomery following Kurt Roper's exit in 2013 was that Duke's boss had the ability to elevate another member of the Roper family to that position if he wanted to.
Zac Roper was on Duke's staff for the six years Kurt served as offensive coordinator. Zac worked with running backs and tight ends during that time, and then he moved to special teams while also becoming the program's recruiting coordinator. Zac Roper has become something of a Swiss army knife of assistants in his career, being able to coach various positions and having the capacity to address multiple phases of the sport, not just one. Kurt, his brother, was a more laser-focused specialist who always taught quarterbacks and called offensive plays. Zac delved into various aspects of football, often positional but sometimes phase-specific (special teams).
It was reasonable to think that since both brothers worked for Cutcliffe when Peyton Manning's first guru was the head coach at Ole Miss in the early years of the 21st century, the Ropers would continue to exist in the comfortable niches they had known. Kurt would continue to be an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, while Zac would continue to be a position coach with considerable knowledge of special teams, a facet of football in which many players not quite good enough to crack the starting 11 on offense or defense often get their chance to shine. Zac Roper has spent a lot of his time -- at Duke and under Cutcliffe -- coaching the kinds of players who exist under the radar.
In other words, not quarterbacks -- that was his brother's specialty.
Let's go back to the end of the 2015 season:
Scottie Montgomery had just taken the East Carolina job, creating a vacancy at the offensive coordinator spot. Sure, family continuity is great. Yes, Zac Roper had been a loyal foot soldier on a staff which included his brother from 2008 through 2013 in Durham, North Carolina. Of course, the presence of two Roper brothers lent cohesion to the Duke coaching staff, paving the way for the football program's revival. Coaches communicated well among themselves, and that reality flowed to the staff's relationships with players. Zac Roper meant a lot to Cutcliffe, and as recruiting coordinator, he seemed to be a in a very good place as a man who could continue to shape the program's trajectory.
Becoming offensive coordinator, though? That was supposed to be his brother's line of work.
Yet, given his dues-paying years as a position coach and a special teams coach, and given his ability to fit into all sorts of roles and do what the situation demanded of him, Zac Roper stood out to Cutcliffe -- a longtime mentor -- as a man ready to take the next step in his coaching career. Cutcliffe handed Zac the keys to the Duke offense. For the second time in the Cutcliffe era in Durham (the second time since the 2013 season), a Roper brother will coordinate the Blue Devil attack.
This move can easily be spun and perceived in two diametrically different ways. On one hand, Cutcliffe is working with a Roper brother as his offensive coordinator. He'll be in sync with what plays are called and enjoy a strong relationship based on seamless, open communication.
On the other hand, Zac's career trajectory and previous lines of expertise -- zig-zagging, and all over the map -- offer Cutcliffe less than complete clarity in terms of how this other Roper brother will handle the heat which comes with big-time FBS play calling from the booth. It's a bigger responsibility than anything Zac Roper has previously handled, and as fluid as his communication skills might be, his play selection skills are untested.
We -- and Army -- won't know what to expect until game film begins to accumulate.
Count Duke among the 2016 Army opponents with a new offensive coordinator, and therefore a little bit of mystery in the magic bag.