Syracuse is welcoming a new two-man show to town and, with any luck, it will be a long, exciting, successful run. And pass. Actually, lots of long, exciting, successful runs and passes.
The Orange have added offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck to their football coaching staff. Both came from ACC mate Virginia, coming free after Bronco Mendenhall announced he was stepping down as the Cavaliers’ head coach after their regular season wrapped (their bowl game was eventually canceled when they withdrew due to COVID issues in their program).
Anae, in fact, departed the Virginia program a few days before the bowl game was slated to be played. Beck was slated to pick up playcalling duties for the game until the Cavaliers had to withdraw from the bowl due to COVID issues. That withdrawal came a week after Anae departed the Cavalier program. It was also the day he and Beck were reported to be hired by Syracuse with the formal announcement coming from the athletic department four days later.
So, what are the Orange getting with this two-man show that has played together at BYU and Virginia over the last nine seasons, three in Provo and the most recent half dozen in Charlottesville?
Age 63, Anae has been a collegiate coach for over three decades, including 15 years of experience as an offensive coordinator, the last nine with Beck, a couple decades his junior, as his quarterback coach. Anae has run effective offenses of varied sorts over his career, tailoring his offense to his personnel.
Evidence of that strategic flexibility is found in the playcalling made by Anae in those last nine seasons. Last season, the Cavaliers ran 62.2 percent pass plays, throwing the third-most passes per game. Three years earlier, Virginia operated under a different mindset, running the ball on 58.3 percent run plays.
Regardless of the style, offenses with Anae at the help have generally been pretty effective. In the three years Anae and Beck worked together at BYU, the Cougars went 25-14 overall, averaging 33.6 points and 457.3 yards per game with 5.6 yards per play being the lowest mark in those campaigns. And those BYU offense rolled up those stats in varying ways.
The 2013 team had two ballcarriers (future NFL running back Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill) each pick up over 1,200 yards and seven scores on the ground while the team averaged almost 250 passing yards a game. The next year’s group got over 3,600 yards passing and 650 rushing yards to go with 44 touchdowns from their quarterbacks. The 2015 squad got over 3,850 passing yards while getting 20 scores and 5.63 yards per carry from a trio of running backs.
After a bumpy 2-10 start for Virginia in 2016, things started to click under Anae and Beck and the team went 34-28 over the next five seasons, including earning an ACC Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl berth. Things really picked up for the offense in the last four seasons when the Cavs had a dual-threat signal-caller.
With Bryce Perkins taking snaps for the first two of those four seasons, then Brennan Armstrong doing the same for two years after that, the Cavaliers’ yards per play jumped from back-to-back seasons of 4.9 to a four-year run of 5.8, 5.7, 5.7, and 6.9. That 2021 mark was good for sixth in the nation. Those Virginia squads averaged 22.5 points per game in the first two seasons, then averaged 28.5 or more points in the four subsequent seasons, topping out at 2021’s 34.6 per contest.
Perkins’ first season resulted in 2,680 passing yards and 25 scores through the air to go with 923 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. In 2019, he boosted his passing total to 3,530 yards with 22 TD passes while leading the team with 769 rushing yards to go with 11 more scores. In both seasons, Perkins proved accurate with his arm, completing 64.5 and 64.4 percent of his passing attempts.
In just nine games during the 2020 season, Armstrong threw for 2,117 yards while adding a team-leading 552 more on the ground. Last season, Armstrong blew up, finishing second in the nation in passing yards with 4,444 yards to go with 31 touchdowns against ten interceptions.
Particularly of note for Syracuse fans is Beck’s effect on working with Armstrong, whose completion rate jumped from 58.6 percent in 2020 to 65.3 percent last year. Garrett Shrader struggled as a first-time starter for the Orange last season, connecting on just 52.6 percent of his passes. Even a jump to a fairly pedestrian 60 percent completion rate would make SU a lot more potent on offense.
Anae has shown he can accomplish things a couple different ways with the running game. After their first season at BYU where quarterback Taysom Hill ran for 1,344 yards and running back Jamaal Williams rambled for 1,233, the Cougars shifted to more of a committee-based approach when Williams missed five games in 2014 and the entire 2015 season.
That trend repeated itself in Virginia. Running back Taquan Mizell had 940 yards on the ground in 2016, then Jordan Ellis followed in those footsteps by gaining 836 yards the next season, then 1,026 yards and ten scores in 2018. In Ellis’ 1,000-yard campaign, Bryce Perkins nearly matched him with 923 yards. But, since then, Anae’s offenses have lacked a feature running back, but pieced together a competent rushing attack.
That’s okay, though. I think Syracuse currently has a feature back moonlighting on its track team. Looking at those rushing figures for the 2013 season at BYU and the 2018 campaign for Virginia should make Sean Tucker pleased while thinking big things along with Garrett Shrader.
Anae’s offenses have also produced differently through the pass game pending the receiver talent on board. The 2014 BYU squad had six players catch at least 20 passes, led by Mitch Mathews’ 73 receptions and Jordan Leslie’s 55. The following year, five Cougars caught between 37 and 54 passes.
The 2016 Virginia team had four receivers make between 49 and 52 receptions while Olamide Zaccheus had 178 catches in 2017 and 2018 combined. The 2019 Cavs had three receivers with between 73 and 77 receptions while last year’s group had pass catchers snare 77, 75, 57, 44, and 34 passes.
There is no clear format for what Anae will do and how exactly Beck will help the Orange quarterbacks. There are likely preferences, but the duo is not married to one particular style. Despite whatever path they choose, their trademark has been improvement and success. Hopefully, that show will have a long run under the bright lights in Syracuse.