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Dick Harmon: Can Robert Anae overcome challenges in return to BYU?

Published: Saturday, Sept. 5 2015 10:29 a.m. MDT

Max Hall celebrates with coach Robert Anae as BYU defeats Washington in Seattle 28-27. September 6, 2008 Photo by Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News.  (Scott G. Winterton, Dnews) Max Hall celebrates with coach Robert Anae as BYU defeats Washington in Seattle 28-27. September 6, 2008 Photo by Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News. (Scott G. Winterton, Dnews)

PROVO — A retreaded Robert Anae as BYU’s offensive coordinator?

A mulligan, a second-chance, another opportunity? Is it a good move by Bronco Mendenhall?

Of course, that remains to be seen. Critics will say no, that when Anae left for Arizona his wall was painted with some graffiti that was pretty stained.

On the other hand, Anae back at BYU will be a different situation and new bulkhead. He is seven years removed from the January he came from Texas Tech as a novice offensive coordinator, a rookie play-caller with a young team and a staff that was pieced together like salad under a sneeze bar.

When Anae left BYU after the 2010 season, he did so on his own accord and power. He’d had it with some discord amongst his staff; he’d been undermined, or as some have described it, the staff was dysfunctional.

This time, Anae has total autonomy on who will be on his offensive staff, including the hire of current associate athletic director and former BYU running back Mark Atuaia as the running back coach.

Here are the positives Anae brings to the table:

He is an honest person who values values. He is a devoted member of his faith, an exceptional father and husband who believes in BYU’s mission.

Anae brings discipline and exactness in execution. He believes there is power in simplicity done right. He is intense and is a perfectionist. He will coach BYU’s offensive line, which has struggled since he departed; a job he excelled at with his most recent venture with the Arizona Wildcats. He is a tough guy who can challenge and elevate Cougar offensive linemen who have been described as “soft” by their practice counterparts.

Anae believes in protecting the quarterback at all costs, a departure from what BYU has experienced the past two seasons with injuries to Jake Heaps (ribs), Riley Nelson (broken ribs, dislocated ribs, dislocated shoulder and surgery, a broken back), Taysom Hill (hyper-extended knee and season-ending surgery), and James Lark (unannounced concussion in the Poinsettia Bowl).

Another Anae priority is ball security.

Anae believes in an execution-based offense that puts a premium on making plays work. It’s a double-edged sword in that while he tries to run perfect plays — even if defenses know what is coming — it stifles creativity and makes it predictable. If Anae has grown to offset this, which is an issue against very good defenses, it bodes well.

On the other hand, young quarterbacks like Hill would benefit from the emphasis on exactness and simplicity of a few plays over having to manage a myriad of plays that may be mastered by an experienced QB with thousands of repetitions, but are confusing to a novice.

An example is Gary Crowton, who believed in creativity to help inexperience versus Anae who was the opposite. John Beck would have benefited from starting his career with Anae, then graduating to Crowton instead of the other way around.

The key for Anae’s success is two-fold.

He must assemble a cohesive staff that is on the same page. His staff has to get along and show chemistry and present a united front to players. Loyalty is crucial. His quarterback coach must sell the coordinator to the quarterbacks and everyone has to have a belief and faith in the system; that it works.

You need look no further to appreciate this than the outstanding transition of Texas A&M in the SEC under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin, who took his entire Houston staff to College Station. You saw the consistency and chemistry idea by Sumlin with his coaching staff when the Aggies beat Alabama and produced a freshman Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. One year, first year, initial year and done. This is why Gary Andersen took key members of his USU staff to Wisconsin.

This will be very hard, but Anae must try to hit the mark. Fast. His boss has one year on his contract and nobody knows what Mendenhall will do after 2013. And the Cougars face one of the toughest schedules in recent history this fall.

Anae must create something similar to what Sumlin carried with him. But everyone wants that. Anae doesn’t have a complete staff he can transplant; he has to create one on the run. It will be very difficult. If he can pick the right loyal pieces in the days to come and sell them to players in spring, it will go a long way to ease the transition. Anae’s job might be easier because he is familiar with the facilities, regime, setting and head coach. He is also propped up by some very good talent that returns.

Secondly, Anae’s staff has to be capable of teaching his system. It is one thing to have a system, but it’s another thing to actually teach it. The last time Anae took BYU’s offensive coordinator job, he brought in a playbook, but he and his staff members were not experienced at teaching it; it was a whole new thing for him. This is not the case this time around on Anae’s part. An educator by trade, he is now an experienced football practice teacher.

He was not the same OC even from John Beck to Max Hall. He learned. Then left.

I’d look for Anae to return BYU to a pocket quarterback system that features a tough run attack and deployment of tight ends. With his experience at Arizona, there could be some spread and option mixed in.

The most successful running backs and tight end, receiver and QB in school history came under Anae’s last reign in Provo. Guys like Curtis Brown, Harvey Unga, Dennis Pitta, Austin Collie and Max Hall. The offensive line he just coached at Arizona opened the way for Ka'Deem Carey to win the NCAA rushing title in 2013.

With BYU’s expected success on defense to continue with the return of Kyle Van Noy, even if Anae got the Cougars 10 more points a game in 2013, it would be a huge step forward from the past two struggling years on that side of the ball.

But nothing Anae does will work if he doesn’t assemble a staff that believes in him and is loyal to him.

That was not the case the first time around.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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