Estes: How Mark Richt saved Pro Day

ATHENS, Ga. – Somehow during Georgia’s Pro Day on Tuesday, a bizarre lose-lose situation became a win-win, and credit is now being paid to the man responsible.

Georgia coach Mark Richt speaks to George Whitfield during Tuesday's Pro Day in Athens.

“My hats off to Coach (Mark) Richt,” George Whitfield said.

How did it happen?

Well, one of the strangest Pro Day occurrences ever seen began when former Georgia wide receivers A.J. Green and Kris Durham returned to campus recently with a new friend.

Justin Roper is a 6-foot-6, 230-pound quarterback who hails from Buford, Ga. As a high school senior the same year that Matthew Stafford was headed to UGA, Roper signed with Oregon, later transferred to Montana (as a football and basketball player) and kind of looks a little like Ryan Mallett.

As a 2011 pupil of noted San Diego quarterbacking guru Whitfield (Heisman winner Cam Newton is another), Roper became the hired arm, so to speak, for two receivers who lacked a draft-eligible quarterback departing Georgia’s team.

Roper had played catch for a week with Green and Durham, developing timing with the Bulldogs players while working on a 72-throw script for rehearsals to entertain pro scouts during Tuesday’s Pro Day at UGA. By Monday's dress rehearsal, everything was ready for the performance.

So imagine the surprise once Roper, Green, Durham and Whitfield learned Tuesday morning that Roper would not be able to throw at Pro Day after all.

“And that’s the only quarterback that I had timing with here,” Green said.

In the midst of an unexpected turn of events, A.J. Green spent much of Pro Day on his cell phone.

At the heart of this issue was a quirky NFL rule stating a prospect participating in a Pro Day must either attend the host school or reside in the city’s metro area. Such a region for Athens, after clarification with the NFL office, did not include Roper’s family home in Buford, which was 46.2 miles away from UGA’s campus.

As word spread around the facility, what ensued was the kind of minor controversy that can flare into a major ordeal, especially given Green’s status as a top-flight NFL draft prospect.

Choosing to rest on his numbers from the NFL Combine, Green wasn’t to do anything at UGA’s Pro Day except get measured and catch passes from Roper. Instead, he and Durham may have to catch passes from a randomly selected scout or assistant coach (Jay Gruden of the Cincinnati Bengals was being mentioned as the most likely).

Green actually spent much of Pro Day on his cell phone, figuring out how best to handle the situation. Durham was going to participate either way. He said he thought Green would as well, but that was not a certainty, not in a world with sports agents making millions to advise elite players like Green to avoid instances like this.

Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, who was involved in communications with the league office during the morning, later told that “This was the weirdest Pro Day I’ve ever attended,” mostly because of the Roper issue.

Roper, whose sister attends UGA, was understandably disappointed. He was planning to do all the drills, not just throw passes.

“It wasn’t a fact of we didn’t do the right things,” Roper said. “We just were told the wrong things or there was a miscommunication of some sort. That was frustrating. I would have liked to have run the 40 and done height and weight and stuff, because I’m pretty athletic too.

"But the players and Coach (Mark) Richt, they really kind of stuck their necks out for me and said, ‘We want him to throw.’ I really appreciate them for what they did.”

Former Montana quarterback Justin Roper is from Buford but was not considered local to Athens by the NFL.

For all the hustle and bustle, arguably the most active man during Tuesday morning’s controversy was UGA head coach Mark Richt.

He was all over the practice field, talking with Whitfield, Green, Durham and NFL officials, trying to figure out a resolution acceptable to everyone.

And Richt eventually found one.

“He said, ‘If the technical rule is the scouts can’t be on the field, then I will open up my facility for the scouts to watch indoors,’” Whitfield said.

So believe it or not, that’s how it went.

Once the NFL agreed, dozens of scouts left the practice field before Pro Day ended and walked back into UGA’s newly renovated Butts-Mehre building. They then watched through cameras as Green and Durham took turns catching passes thrown by Roper.

“I appreciate (Richt) doing that,” Durham said. “He stuck his neck out there for us, and like he says, when you come here, you’re a family. And he stuck his neck out there for us like family would. I really am grateful.”

Richt’s actions came despite the fact that he does not currently coach Green, Durham or Roper, and he actually was preparing his own team to resume spring practice in a few hours.

Asked how many college coaches would devote time and energy to make such a thing a reality, Whitfield replied, “I don’t know of any – or too many, I should say.”

“I mean, this guy is phenomenal,” Whitfield said. “He flat out said, ‘I want what’s absolutely best for the Bulldog players. It’s their Pro Day, and if we have to make an adjustment to have it play out the very best way possible, then so be it.’ So with his help and his leadership and with agreements of the NFL officials, they all went inside.”

Scouts watched as Roper connected on 61 of 64 passes – in Whitfield’s estimation – and Green and Durham took turns making nice grabs.

“I can’t say enough,” Roper said of Richt. “This is basically my shot. I know it helps his players out, too. But that’s not why he did it. He’s a good person. He and I were talking when I was transferring about possibly here, so we had a relationship.

“He’s a great man, first of all. And I think that really shows in times like these.”

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