The most important pieces that could lead to immediate success for the Colorado football team didn’t arrive on Wednesday.
It was a somewhat jarring sense of calm at CU for national signing day, the annual February hope-fest that has been rendered anti-climactic thanks to the new early signing day the NCAA implemented this year in December.
Coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff signed the bulk of the latest batch of new Buffaloes seven weeks ago, with nine of them having already enrolled for the spring semester. Since that early signing date, MacIntyre added three new assistants to his staff — cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose, who signed up for his second tour of duty in Boulder; defensive line coach Kwahn Drake; and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper.
While there is little doubt Drake’s job in reinvigorating the Buffs’ defensive front is one of the biggest personnel challenges on the team, the man whose wisdom will prove most crucial toward the Buffs’ immediate success is Roper.
The new mentor to incumbent starting quarterback Steven Montez owns a long history with MacIntyre. So long, in fact, it took MacIntyre a moment during Wednesday’s press conference to sort through his long trail of football memories back to 1998, when he and Roper joined David Cutcliffe’s staff at Ole Miss in time for a crash course together ahead of the program’s date in the Independence Bowl after Tommy Tuberville abruptly left Ole Miss for Auburn.
Twenty years later, MacIntyre is putting the future of the Buffs’ top returning asset into Roper’s hands. CU’s new quarterbacks coach hasn’t been able to indulge in too many video sessions with Montez so far, instead explaining how their new working relationship will be a work in progress through the spring.
“It’s such a small sample size that it’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Roper said. “It’s always easy to be eager and hard-working and all that early, but this has got to be a marathon. We’ve got to be who we are for the long haul. You look at guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and the reason they endure is that they can handle the grind all the time. They’re not one week, one month, one season. They’re over and over and over again.
“I think that’s the challenge. Right now through three weeks it’s easy to do all that. How are we going to do it through the whole process.”
While there remains plenty of areas that need improving for CU to return to the bowl picture — in addition to the underwhelming defensive front last year, the Buffs must protect Montez better up front and find a dependable replacement for running back Phillip Lindsay — it is Montez who boasts both the talent and experience to turn potential losses into close wins at the end of games.
By no means was Montez’s 2017 season a failure, as he threw for 2,975 yards and became the first CU quarterback to reach 300 passing yards in three consecutive games. Yet too often untimely mistakes from Montez — the pick-sixes against Washington and USC, or the struggles out of the gate at Washington State — helped turn winnable games against Pac-12 front-runners into frustrating losses for the Buffs.
That’s where Roper comes in. He mentored none other than Eli Manning during his time at Ole Miss, and he gladly has pursued an opportunity at CU that is a little more in the background than the coordinator role he has filled for more than a dozen years. By coming to CU Roper certainly isn’t inheriting a cupboard-is-bare situation. Getting Montez to play at another level could easily make the difference between a second bowl berth in three seasons or another disappointing 5-7 year.
“It definitely helps going into a situation where a guy has experience,” Roper said. “And every situation you go into is competitive, but it definitely helps with a guy having some real game work. And for me, in my career…I’m 45 years-old and I’ve coached 20 years now as a full-time coach and I’ve called plays for 13 years of it. You sit there and say, ‘How am I going to grow as a coach?’ And it’s not always saying, well OK let me go take this other coordinator job and keep calling plays. I believe you can always learn. So getting into a new system for me offensively so I can expand my knowledge, which can help me down the road, I saw that as a benefit.”