- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

High school football coaches in the west descend upon Reno, Nev., each spring seeking the secrets of a scheme Nevada used to become a postseason regular.

Nevada coach Chris Ault is glad to share his insights into the Pistol - an always evolving and increasingly popular offense he created a few years ago and has created headaches for opponents ever since.

The latest is Maryland (7-5), which will meet the Wolf Pack (7-5) in Tuesday’s Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. Once there, the Terrapins will face an offense with a quarterback lined up four yards behind the line but with a tailback stationed behind him.

“Getting ready for these guys in one week would really be tough,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “They isolate you. If you miss a tackle, it’s going to be a big play.”

Ault returned for his third stint as Nevada’s coach in 2004 and promptly endured only the second losing season of his 24-year career. Displeased with the Wolf Pack’s rushing game, Ault started tinkering.

He was intrigued with the shotgun but wanted to dispense with any east-west running. That led to placing the tailback behind the quarterback, which in turn led to the name of a scheme perhaps best described as a hybrid of the shotgun and the I-formation.

Ault figured a quarterback would be in position to make a throw faster than if he was under center, and there obviously were four extra yards of room to work with rather than a typical formation. But it also was a better chance for a quarterback to run if that opportunity presented itself.

“We had a one-back offense, and we took the foundation that we didn’t want to lose - whether it was run or pass - when we first put in the Pistol in 2005,” Ault said. “That is mostly what we went with, what we did before and felt comfortable with.”

Nevada augmented it in the years since, adding different reads and play-action options. But like so many other schemes, what it really needed was an ideal quarterback.

Current backup Nick Graziano was the first quarterback recruited specifically for the Pistol, and he started five games last season before suffering a broken foot. That created an opportunity for Colin Kaepernick, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound Californian who ran the wing-T in high school.

It turned out he was an ideal fit. The sophomore was the WAC’s offensive player of this year this fall, accounting for 35 touchdowns and only five interceptions as Nevada clinched its fourth straight bowl invitation.

Still, there’s more to Nevada’s success than Kaepernick.

“It’s easy to run if you don’t get touched until you’re four yards beyond the line,” Kaepernick said. “It’s easy to throw when you’re not in a hurry to throw. Our offensive line has done a tremendous job and really carried this offense to where it is.”

It also has solved Ault’s rushing game problems. The Wolf Pack produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in three of the last four seasons (two this year, Vai Taua and Kaepernick) while giving opponents unaccustomed to planning for its nuances fits.

That’s the situation Friedgen faces this month. He first saw the Pistol when Nevada played Central Florida in the Hawaii Bowl three years ago and was intrigued but found a deeper appreciation for it upon breaking down game film.

“It puts a guy in motion and really gains an extra guy on you,” Friedgen said. “It’s really got a lot of wishbone overtones to it. It’s pretty tough to be able to handle everything and the different reads, and the reads are delayed because it’s out of the gun. You have to wait till they get the ball to see what’s happening because the guy is right behind the quarterback. It’s a pretty unique situation.”

Enough so that Ault is a popular guy for other coaches to analyze. He’s also amused when he turns on games from other parts of the country and sees elements of his offense incorporated into other teams’ schemes.

“We get inundated during the spring time,” Ault said. “We share most everything we have. It’s a neat offense, and you can apply some of the things we do in the Pistol. Every offense has flaws and has things you certainly can’t do, and the Pistol’s no exception. But it’s been fun for us.”

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