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What kind of offense will Virginia football run under Bronco Mendenhall—and which quarterback fits it best?

Will Hoos look to establish success on the ground or through the air?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With spring camp in the rearview mirror in Charlottesville, there's little left to do for Virginia Cavaliers fans hungry for the start of football in the Mendenhall era. There's following recruiting news. There's lamenting transfers out and huzzahing transfers in.

But the most celebrated of all college football offseason traditions is this one: the grasping at any nugget of information, so as to fuel wild speculation.

The spring game gave us only a glimpse into the offensive system under Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae. The formations were fairly constant—three and four receivers, almost entirely out of the shotgun—but the individual plays mostly came in sessions that were designated as run-heavy or pass-heavy. It shed little light on what the preferred mode of attack will be.

So, like with our other guesses, we turn to what this same staff did at BYU.

What we know about Robert Anae

Coach Anae has had offensive system influences from some of the most innovative offensive coaches of the last twenty years. From 2000 to 2004, he was the offensive line coach in Mike Leach's Air Raid system at Texas Tech. After five years at BYU, Anae went to Arizona and was the offensive line coach and run-game coordinator for Rich Rodriguez and his spread-to-run system.

Anae came back to Provo in 2013. The last three years, his offenses had a markedly different run-pass balance each season.

Rushes Total Plays Rush %
2015 413 917 45.1
2014 567 1050 54
2013 664 1111 59.8

In the three seasons under Anae, BYU's offense morphed dramatically into a more pass-first attack. This has led most UVA fans to expect something akin to an Air Raid offense in 2016—a return to Anae's Leach-based roots.

But those rushing percentages at BYU have a direct correlation with Taysom Hill's health. In 2015, when Hill played only one game and the bigger, slower, better-throwing Tanner Mangum took over, BYU threw it the most. In 2013, when Hill played every game, the Cougars ran it almost 60 percent of the time. In 2014, when Hill played four and a half games, it was somewhere in between.

Compare those BYU numbers to the last three seasons at ECU—where Ruffin McNeill, a fellow Mike Leach pupil, ran the Air Raid—and at Arizona.


Rushes Total Plays Rush %
2015 404 877 46.1
2014 433 1070 40.5
2013 463 1028 45


Rushes Total Plays Rush %
2015 526 992 53
2014 575 1139 50.5
2013 647 1030 62.8

If the ideal rushing percentage for Anae is somewhere in the 55 to 60 percent range, then that looks an awful lot like the Arizona side of things. Only when the three-year starter went down did BYU's numbers resemble the Air Raid system McNeill implemented with his Pirates.

What this might mean for the quarterbacks

When Kurt Benkert transferred to Charlottesville from ECU, he emphasized his familiarity with the Hoos' offense as one of the big reasons he felt comfortable choosing UVA.

"We ran the Air Raid these past three years at East Carolina," Benkert said. "I can coach it if I had to. So it was really nice knowing they're bringing the same system. All the concepts are the same, the terminology's a little bit different, but they do the same stuff. It's just a lot of familiarity with it and I was really good at running this offense and getting people to understand the concepts and everything."

That grasp of the offense and the fact that Anae uses the same terminology as the Air Raid at ECU are both strong marks in Benkert's favor as the quarterback competition goes into fall camp.

But if there are elements of the Arizona system in the offense as well, another QB may stand to benefit: Connor BrewerBrewer was at Arizona under RichRod for two years (2013 and 2014) before transferring to UVA. While he saw only limited action—one carry in 2014, and no passes—that's still two years learning the system. The fact that Brewer was able to catch the incumbent starter in Matt Johns and insert himself into the conversation to start indicates there may be some parts of the offense that fit not just Brewer's physical abilities, but also his previous stint with the Wildcats.

Bottom line

Virginia is going to play FAST in 2016, much faster than we've seen in recent years: UVA averaged about 875 plays a season from 2013 to 2015, while BYU, ECU and Arizona each averaged right around 1,000. And there's going to be no more of Fairchild's "balance for balance's sake" offense. (The most heavily tilted season one way or the other for UVA since 2013? 51.1% run in 2014.) Instead, the Hoos are going to pick a way to beat teams that fits Virginia's personnel, whether that's on the ground or in the air.