It’s been nearly a quarter century since Mark Richt coached Charlie Ward to a Heisman Trophy and national title, but the former Florida State quarterback remains a popular talking point for his former coordinator.
Perhaps it’s because Richt’s newest quarterback, freshman N’Kosi Perry, looks a little like Ward -- long, wiry, athletic and, most notably, outside Richt's norm. The Ward-Perry comparison exists, in part, because Richt simply hasn’t coached many other guys like them.
“He can throw, he can run, he can think,” Richt said of Perry. “He’s got a chance to be a good player.”
A chance. That’s a big thing for Richt too. The buzz surrounding Perry seems to increase by the day, and Richt’s comments -- about waiting to see Perry compete for the job, about a more diverse offense with a mobile QB, about a kid who looks like Charlie Ward -- have only served to excite Miami Hurricanes fans more.
“He’s got to learn what he can do before he competes,” Richt said. “You don’t want to throw a guy in before he’s ready, and he’s got to outperform these other guys. A lot of people think I’m saying N’Kosi’s going to be the guy. But really, all I’m saying is I’m going to give him a chance to be the guy.”
That’s what’s so exciting though -- at least for Richt. As much as the physical factors remind him of Ward, so too does the opportunity.
Richt made his bones as a coordinator at Florida State in the 1990s, then took that offense to Georgia in 2001. After a few years as head coach, however, he handed off the play-calling duties to Mike Bobo, and the task of molding a young QB into the next star -- the next Charlie Ward -- became more big picture than hands-on.
There were plenty of times over the years at Georgia that Richt considered getting back to his roots. He missed the day-to-day work of drawing up an offense. When Bobo left for Colorado State after the 2014 season, Richt nearly pulled the trigger, but in the end, it seemed like too much upheaval. A year later, he was out at Georgia.
“Once everything was said and done [at Georgia], I knew if I was going to coach again -- either as a head coach or coordinator -- I was going be hands-on and do those things,” Richt said.
Coordinator? Yup, Richt said he would have considered an assistant job just to get back to running an offense had Miami not stepped in with an offer to be both head coach and play-caller.
With the Hurricanes, Richt has maintained many of the duties of program front man he’d managed at Georgia, but getting his hands dirty in the meeting room and on the practice field has been a revelation. He surrounded himself with a familiar staff, including former players Ron Dugans and Thomas Brown, former Georgia assistant Stacy Searels and Richt’s son Jon. The result in Year 1 was a Hurricanes offense that averaged nearly a touchdown more per game than it had in 2015, a high-water mark for the program since 2002.
“I’m even more excited about it now,” Richt said. “I spend a lot of my time thinking about it, watching film, doing the things I used to do as a coordinator.”
So last season was successful in terms of Richt returning to his roots, but this year is the real test. Rather than inherit an already developed quarterback, Richt is building from scratch. And that, he said, is exciting.
The spring offered surprises, as Jack Allison left the program and Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs earned co-No. 1 spots atop the quarterback depth chart. Richt insists he’d be comfortable with either opening the season. Cade Weldon, son of another Richt-coached QB (Casey Weldon), is in the mix too.
But then there’s Perry, a star in the making -- if only Richt can make him into a steady competitor first.
Perry’s athleticism and arm strength offer Richt opportunities to expand the playbook, to test how much the game really has evolved since his days calling plays in Tallahassee. It’s also a chance for Richt to stretch his legs and perhaps quiet some of those critics who dogged him in his final years at Georgia for a lack of offensive creativity.
“I was aware of things that were happening in the game, just new things, more RPO [run/pass option], zone-read stuff,” Richt said. “No one was doing those things back when I was calling.”
That’s not to say Richt is looking to reinvent a system that works. In fact, he’s been careful to say he’s not rewriting the script just because Perry brings a more dynamic approach. Again, Richt said, the Ward comparison fits.
“We had the zone read last year, but we’re not inventing a bunch of QB runs,” Richt said. “When we had Charlie Ward, I don’t think I ever called a QB run, but he ran for 550 yards because he could.”
In other words, this isn’t so much Richt 3.0 here. It's more like Nintendo releasing a sleeker new version of its classic system, a slice of nostalgia packaged to jump-start a tired franchise. Perry offers Richt an opportunity to return to what he does best -- building an offense, molding a QB.
None of this is guaranteed, of course. Perry just arrived on campus last week, and he has a lot of catching up to do before he’s even pushing for a starting gig. But that’s the fun of it for Richt. The work matters, his hands get dirty and the results are dictated by the job he can do bringing his young QB along. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.