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“Flex-Wide” and “Football Player”: How Unique Talent Succeeds in the Robert Anae Offense

Dennis Nett/Syracuse.com

Who ever thought a 6-foot-4, 190 pound wide receiver would line up in a three point stance next to a left tackle?

Watching Oronde Gadsden II as a freshman, most would’ve assumed he was the next big bodied receiver to come into Syracuse, line up near the boundary, run deep routes, and never produce.

Remember the name Ed Hendrix? What about the potential of Ravian Pierce? There were multiple stories of players coming to Syracuse and then being misused. Lining up Jawhar Jordan as a power back. Not getting Taj Harris (who quit football, by the way), the ball in creative ways. Dino Babers and Sterlin Gilbert held their players back with the offensive creativity of a second-grader playing Madden. Something needed to change

Dino realized this after a lethargic end to the 2021 season, especially on the offensive side of the football. Get Gilbert out of there. Bring in Robert Anae, who turned Virginia into a high-powered passing attack. Wait, Virginia? That’s not a football powerhouse.

The answer? Getting the best players the football in as many ways as possible.

For example, Keytaon Thompson. The 6-foot-5, 215 pound gazelle was a dual-threat quarterback at Mississippi State for two years, and actually was the opposing starting quarterback in Lamar Jackson’s last college football game. Then Joe Moorehead moved him from QB to WR in 2019, when some guy named Garrett Shrader beat Thompson out (and then Shrader was moved to receiver). There’s a reason Moorehead only lasted two years.

When Thompson transferred to Virginia, then lost the quarterback battle to Brennan Armstrong, Anae figured out ways to use his skillset that would change the game. The mission was to play Thompson everywhere.

Bronco Mendenhall says UVA on a mission to play Keytaon Thompson in as many positions as possible

Watch closely and try to figure out all the spots Thompson lines up in the formation. You’ll find six different positions throughout the first 3:00. Wide receiver, slot receiver, running back, halfback, quarterback; the list could just keep on going.

Keytaon Thompson 2021 Regular Season Highlights | Virginia WR

This is why Thompson was the “football player” last year. He legitimately did everything a skill player could do on offense, for over 1,000 total yards and 2nd-team all-ACC honors. Streaking the Lawn’s Zach Carey told the Fizz,

“Anae let Keytaon Thompson be Keytaon Thompson, in that Taysom Hill mode…He just let him go. There wasn’t a ton of scheming, it was just let’s get the ball to Thompson and let him go”

Carey also remarked on the differences between Anae and current UVA head coach Tony Elliot’s offensive philosophies:

“It’s different this year. Elliot sees him as a prototypical wide receiver. It’s questionable…are we stunting what we could get out of him?”

The UVA offense is anemic this year, scoring just 17 points per game, and struggling mightily in the red zone. Meanwhile, Anae is running a unit which has scored 30-plus points in each of its first three games.

The veteran offensive coordinator’s scheme has been tweaked at SU, but the base tactic is still the same. Get the best, most athletic players the ball in as many ways as possible. This is why Sean Tucker is SU’s leading receiver. Why Trebor Pe√±a is now the starting slot receiver. And why Oronde Gadsden is slotted in the “flex-wide.” To break down the term, it’s a massive slot receiver/tight end, like Kyle Pitts of the Falcons or Travis Kelce of the Chiefs. An elite pass catcher who forces mismatches with where he’s lined up. Gadsden has already been forgotten by multiple defenses this year for wide open catches, and utilized his size as a man-beater over the middle.

Syracuse WR Oronde Gadsden II Shines Versus Purdue

Will Gadsden line up in the backfield? Maybe not. Will he take direct snaps. No shot. But getting him the ball means success for SU.

If Gadsden’s breakout performance and Anae’s offensive philosophy are any indicators, it means the Orange should find a whole other host of ways to get their playmakers the ball. It also points towards future success with making more out of less, as the ‘Cuse to do with football recruiting. Syracuse has a class of 2023 tight end commit – David Sellers, from Christian Brothers Academy in Albany – who is 6-foot-7, 265 pounds. The future is coming.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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