Kurt Roper was embarrassed by the number of sacks South Carolina gave up last year. He can only imagine how embarrassed his former boss and veteran quarterback guru David Cutcliffe was for him.
“Our numbers in sacks were astronomical from what I’m used to,” said Roper, the Gamecocks second-year offensive coordinator.
In Roper’s first season at the helm of the offense, the Gamecocks were last in the SEC and 119th in the nation in sacks allowed with 3.15 per game. Only four SEC teams in the last nine years have given up more.
Must have been a really rough year for the offensive line, huh? Well, yes… and no.
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“The quarterbacks were responsible for some of those,” Roper said.
In fact, the quarterbacks were responsible for 17 of the 41 sacks South Carolina surrendered last season, and lowering that number is one of Roper’s primary objectives during the Gamecocks spring practice this season.
“A lot of the protection stuff was on me,” said quarterback Jake Bentley, who took over the starting job in the seventh game of the season. “It’s not all on the offensive line.”
Roper’s target is to give up a sack on fewer than five percent of his offense’s pass attempts. Last year, the number was nearly twice that (9.8 percent). Roper was beginning to see promising signs before the Gamecocks began spring practice this season.
“I think he’s grown in that world of understanding what we’re trying to do protection wise,” Roper said, “and he’s grown in our system.”
Last year, Bentley rarely changed a protection or play call at the line of scrimmage due to his inexperience, head coach Will Muschamp said.
“We can be much more multiple formation-wise, attack wise and certainly have more variety in protections to make sure we are protected. He understands where his hot (routes) are,” Muschamp said. “He understands when he has to get rid of the football, and that’s going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”
Bentley’s biggest adjustment to college football was in learning and implementing the Gamecocks protections schemes, which involves multiple identifying an opponent’s defensive intentions on each snap, recalling which protection in his arsenal is best suited to counter it and communicating all that to the other 10 players quickly and effectively.
“Just knowing who’s blocked and knowing what some of our fixes are in protection is one of the biggest things,” Bentley said.
He credits his big game against South Florida in the bowl game – 390 yards and three touchdowns passing – mostly on being able to effectively implement the team’s protection schemes. Part of that was due to cram sessions with graduate assistant coach Matthew Symmes and part of that was due to the Bulls rudimentary defensive scheme.
Bentley will have to make a lot more progress to be ready for SEC teams who are sure to have made notes about all the things that gave him trouble in his first season, if for no other reason than self-preservation. He didn’t get take all 41 of those sacks last season, but he took enough to put his health on the line a few times.
“As a quarterback in the SEC, you know you’re going to take a lot of hits,” Bentley said. “That’s part of being a quarterback. Any quarterback that doesn’t get his shouldn’t play in the SEC. You just have to battle through it.”
Or avoid it.
“We simply need to get the ball out of our hand faster,” Roper said, “take less sacks.”