Taking a shot at the Pistol

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Trends can run rampant in the copycat world of college football.

Everybody’s tempted to experiment with the flavor of the day.

Years ago, the Wishbone offense was the fad that threatened to revolutionize the game and change the way coaches evaluated players. Now, the service academies have cornered that market.

“Three yards and a cloud of dust” never really went completely out of style, especially in the Big Ten.

The West Coast offense put a premium on the pass and enjoyed plenty of success as it filtered to the East. Then, it morphed into the Spread.

Only recently, the latest innovation — the Pistol — was launched out of the Nevada desert, and is in the process of capturing the fancy of even the most discerning offensive minds on the college and pro level.

All the while, Chris Ault just sits back and smiles.

The 66-year-old Ault served three stints — 28 years in all — as the head coach at Nevada, his alma mater. He has 233 victories and a bust in the College Football Hall of Fame (whenever it’s resurrected) to show for his life’s work.

But his legacy will be the Pistol.

It’s a simple variation on a couple of basic offensive formations — melding the shotgun with the direct snap under center — trying to combine the best attributes of both in order to find a new way to attack a defense.

In the Pistol, the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center (rather than the seven-yard drop in the shotgun). The tailback lines up three yards directly behind the quarterback (rather than being on the quarterback’s right or left hip in the shotgun).

“The neat thing about the Pistol is that the formation provides a variety of different motions in front of the quarterback,” Ault said. “There are some misdirection motions that can help.”

Ault came up with the Pistol early in his third tour of duty at Nevada. In 2004, his 5-7 team generated just 419 yards worth of total offense a game.

“I always liked the Shotgun, but I never ran it,” Ault said. “I just liked the concept.

“The problem was the running back was always on the hip of the quarterback. That turned him into an east-west (runner), not north-south. I had always been a one-back coach. I wanted to keep the north-south aspect into the run game.

“There was no film; nobody I could talk to (about the switch). When I brought it to our coaches they all thought I was nuts.”

That craziness evolved into genius. When Ault finally added the threat of the read-option in 2008, the offense really began to sizzle. Since then, Nevada finished in the NCAA’s Top 10 for total offense every year, averaging 511 yards. Of course, bringing in a talent such as current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to run it didn’t hurt, either.

Still, give Ault his due. The new alignment breathed life into a stale offense and caught the eye of coaches on the collegiate and professional level. Now retired (after last season) for the third time as a head coach, besides being an on-staff consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs, Ault criss-crosses the country giving clinics on how to make his innovation work.

Last spring, Ault was part of Notre Dame’s coaches clinic. His input there could have an impact on how the Irish conduct their offensive business this season.

It’s a poorly kept secret around the Notre Dame camp. The Pistol was regularly used during practices open to the media, but neither head coach Brian Kelly nor offensive coordinator Chuck Martin would commit to it.

Kelly did everything he could to talk around it and deflect questions. Martin was a bit more direct.

“It’s like anything else in the world that has its pros and cons,” Martin said. “As we get further into it, (Kelly) is more versed in it

than me, because he’s done some of it in the past. This is kind of my first go-’round with it.

“There’s definitely some mechanical things that make it easier to run an offense from that spot. That is already evident. It’s kind of like direct-snap and Shotgun put together.

“Now, we’re kind of muddling through. There’s certain stuff we like out of direct. There’s certain stuff we like out of the regular ‘gun. Everything’s kind of OK out of the Pistol.

“Where does it all play together? It’s going to be kind of, figure it out as we go. Maybe a lot, maybe a little, maybe not at all.

“It’s still a work in progress, for sure.”

The practice time invested in making the Pistol work gives an indication that, at least early in the season, it will get an honest look.

“The quarterback has much more freedom,” Ault said. “The offense can still run downhill.

“The running back is hidden. I didn’t give that one iota of a thought until our defensive coordinator said his linebackers were having a hard time seeing the running back’s counter-steps. It was hard to pick up right away which way he was going.”

Irish quarterback Tommy Rees is not Colin Kaepernick. Not by a long shot. Kaepernick is quick, fast and elusive. Rees is not, not and not.

That doesn’t mean the offense won’t work. Crisp execution and good decisions can make up for a lot.

“Ballhandling by the quarterback is always critical,” Ault said. “The beauty of the Pistol is that whatever offense you run, you can run that same scheme out of the Pistol. Blocking and everything else can be the same. It provides the quarterback more time to make quality fakes.

“So many teams have taken the Pistol concept and adapted it to their normal offense. Nothing has to change. It just adds another dimension to any offense.

“You don’t have to run the read-option. Kaepernick was an exception. Nobody knew how fast he was. We put in the read-option as another way to work against the defensive end. You would like your quarterback to be an athlete. If he happens to be fast, that’s great.

“I’ve seen the Pistol run successfully, even though the quarterback wasn’t very fast at all. When it’s third-and-four or -six, a defense can’t necessarily play the pass because of the ability to run out of it.

“If you can add another dimension to your offense, why not?”

Martin maintains his reservations and a healthy dose of skepticism, when it comes to revamping a system that wasn’t necessarily struggling in the past.

“That was the whole idea: Can we get our power running game going and can we get our quarterback out from under center?” Martin said. “Clearly, it’s an advantage for the offense.

“Still, for me, sorting out all the plays ... You can do all the plays, but are they as good? Is the timing as good? Is the back hitting the hole at the right time? Because the holes open and close pretty quickly. We’re still sorting through that.”

Temple will likely be the guinea pig.

Better work it out before Michigan. That’s when the real shootin’ starts.

The Pistol needs to be loaded.

South Bend Tribune/GREG SWIERCZ Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly directs players in between drills Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at spring practice for Notre Dame football players.