PROVO — This isn’t the Robert Anae some are used to.
A year down the road from his sabbatical at the University of Arizona under Rich Rodriguez, Anae is at his core the very same man. But if you want to get picky, he’s not.
He’s always been pretty stoic, serious and cautious when talking to the media. He’s been exact in his coaching. He’s a tough guy who's demanding, a kind of perfectionist. He can be stubborn, set in his ways, and in the past he could be a mystery with reporters.
But on Tuesday in Anae’s first media appearance after four practice sessions of fall camp, he made a quick-step entrance into the football office lobby, where reporters awaited quote fodder. He came in like an energetic zephyr and quickly made the rounds with the media, shaking hands like they were well pump handles. He called out the names of the reporters he knew, and he welcomed the ones he did not. Wearing a cresent moon smile, he projected enthusiasm and sunshine. It was like this was a family reunion and reporters were missed cousins.
And that’s not all.
A year ago he was as cautious as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs when describing progress of this go-fast, go-hard offense. He spoke of it being a marathon, not a sprint. He said baby steps were in order as he got this thing going with five new coaches.
This week, he spoke of “a lot of work to do,” but he delivered it like a car salesman with shiny metal in the lot. “We’re a little rusty,” he said. But we’d all witnessed a lot of long bombs in two open practices.
Anae described his quarterbacks as “grip-it-and-rip-it” guys who are attacking downfield like javelin throwers. He described receivers as guys who can make plays.
When asked why he hasn’t used the word marathon this spring or summer, he evoked physics and the term "light year" to describe the distance traveled since preparation for Virginia in 2013.
"You compare us to this point last year, it's a whole light year ahead,” he said. “Can you run a marathon in a light year? You can run 8 jillion marathons in a light year. There's my answer."
And it's just not Anae’s demeanor with reporters — it's his offense.
I remember when John Beck and Todd Watkins practiced the long ball back in Anae's pre-Arizona days, but it was mostly done after practice. They hoped they could do it in practice and in a game if Anae would bend a little and allow them to try.
Now Anae has his quarterbacks launch often and he’s expecting receivers to guess the trajectory and get there.
Anae said a year ago he noticed some “fatigue” in the arm of Taysom Hill after throwing a ton of passes in practice. “Now it’s grip and rip,” he said.
Someone asked Anae about one-year transfer seniors Jordan Leslie (UTEP) and Keanu Nelson (Stanford), who he’s using as slot inside/tight end receivers. The old Anae would have said they haven’t proved anything yet and we'd have to see. On Tuesday, the response of the new Anae was upbeat, like he’d signed up new Amway reps.
“Hey, I think those guys are committed to the team and I really like their attitudes, wow. Those are top-quality dudes who are really competing and doing a nice job embracing the ideals of BYU. Those other guys we’ve worked with for years and years on that point, but these one-year kids have come in and embraced what the team is all about. They are way focused and they are prepared on a higher level, I will say that.”
And he did say that.
So, this is the new Anae.
He’s more than a year removed from his return and the installation of his new concepts; his four new offensive coaches have been to the rodeo. He’s got a veteran quarterback on watch lists. Defensive linemen are describing his offensive linemen as completely different men. He has receiver depth he’s never had before, and he’s closer to reaching a vision of what he expects out of that side of the ball. He is excited.
On Wednesday with pads, defenders slowed things down a little more with some pressure on Hill and backup Christian Stewart. But Stewart still used a blown coverage play to hit newcomer Devon Blackmon for a 60-yard score.
Anae? He’s more optimistic than we’ve seen him in a long time.
It’s as obvious as an orphan at Christmas.
No wonder he’s skipping into press conferences and going right for handshakes.
So, this is what a light year feels like.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].