PROVO — It’s been half a year since Robert Anae returned as BYU’s offensive coordinator and head coach Bronco Mendenhall patted him on the back with praises of loyalty.
Since that time, Anae has been living out of a suitcase at the home of his sister. He is waiting for renters in his actual house to finish their rental agreement so he can move back.
Living in such a way makes one lean and humble. You feel like a burden — that you intrude, that you are always nesting in a temporary place.
Those feelings of offseason imposition and unsettlement will fade away Saturday. Anae will have no time for such worries. As BYU begins fall football drills, he’ll barely have time to rest his head on a pillow — regardless of the geography.
And to me, this will be the most intriguing aspect of Mendenhall’s eighth fall camp: the return of Anae, what he brings, and how much he gets done before the Cougars' opener at Virginia.
In 2005, Mendenhall turned to Anae, an offensive line coach at Texas Tech, and gave him his first experience as an offensive coordinator. He was new. He struggled at times. He needed a break-in period.
Back then, Mendenhall’s QB coach, Brandon Doman, was also new and inexperienced. They had quarterback John Beck to experiment with. He had already been experimented on by previous head coach Gary Crowton. They started over on the poor kid.
There was a lot of guessing and dice shaking back then, but Anae got it going.
He saw Beck subsequently make NFL rosters with the Dolphins, Ravens, Redskins and Texans. He helped build Max Hall, the school’s winningest QB. He built all-time leading rushers Curtis Brown and Harvey Unga and two of the school’s all-time productive pass catchers in Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta.
Then came Anae's weird 2010 departure. At the time, I believed Anae had hit a wall. I scratched my head over his limited use of Todd Watkins back in 2005. His stubborn inflexibility and juggling of Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson in 2010 were setbacks. He entered a stalemate of sorts, but his record spoke for itself. Still, he left. We learned later it was totally voluntary.
Fast forward to August 2013.
Anae returns to town from the University of Arizona. What about that Arizona experience? Was it significant?
As a Wildcat O-line coach and run game coordinator, he faced another learning curve. Perhaps the biggest thing he got out of Tucson, Ariz., was one year of being at the hip of Rich Rodriguez, an offensive juggernaut who incubated and hatched Chip Kelly, who reinvented Oregon’s offense before leaving Eugene, Ore., for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rodriguez added to Anae’s toolbox, which has always contained toughness, exactness, execution and discipline. In Rodriguez, Anae found inspiration for a fast-paced, lightning-quick offense. He learned how to proficiently teach linemen to master the no-huddle with simple zone blocking schemes and packed it to Provo, where he is now Mendenhall's assistant head coach.
In one year as Rodriguez’ O-line coach and run game coordinator, Anae witnessed the birth of the nation’s No. 7 offense in a matter of months, one that averaged 526 yard per game, just 11 yards per game less than Pac-12 leader Oregon. The offense featured the nation’s No. 1 rusher in Ka'Deem Carey. It amassed 574 yards against Colorado, 480 against Utah, 522 against ASU and 578 against Nevada in the Wildcats’ final four games
Of course, comparing Arizona's and BYU's personnel is like comparing apples and oranges in many respects. Both carry strengths and weaknesses over one another. Arizona’s strengths were O-line proficiency and talent.
Anae 2.0 in Provo is interesting because it features a completely new offensive staff. It is interesting because Anae and O-line coach Garett Tujague are not only teaching a quick-pace style to blockers, but are practically rebuilding this front line from the grass up.
Anae 2.0 is under scrutiny because at BYU in 2012, injuries riddled the O-line substantially. Seven times in 2012 Cougar quarterbacks were injured seriously enough to miss games. When backup James Lark finished his work against San Diego State in BYU's bowl game, he had a concussion and his left hand was swollen twice its size from being hit during throws with the right hand.
Eight new offensive line recruits will join the returning mix-and-match group that toiled through 15 practices last spring. And this is the crux of Cougar fortunes in the next few months.
The O-line is so key to BYU’s 2013 season that if Anae and Tujague don’t find improvement quickly, this campaign could turn ugly fast.
I asked Mendenhall how in the world Anae could kindle an O-line out of a situation that was so muddled it was tough to scrimmage the past two springs. He answered by saying that this past spring, although his defense was missing some key players, it could not stop Anae’s offense.
So, the stage is set. The Anae watch is on, regardless of where he sleeps these days.
One interesting thing is very clear: If you line up Anae and Tujague with their O-linemen, although these two men are twice the age, they clearly stand out as superior physical specimens. It is that obvious, give or take a guy or two.
In a book somewhere, that has to count for something in the chapter on examples. This duo can get down in the mud and teach if needed.
It’ll be fun to watch them try.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].