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  • Cathleen Allison / Associated Press file, 2010

    As a quarterback for Nevada, Colin Kaepernick (10) ran an offense that was designed by his coach Chris Ault to benefit the quarterback and running back.

  • Cathleen Allison / Associated Press

    Chris Ault says first reactions to his pistol formation were skeptical. "They thought I'd lost it," he says of his staff. "They thought we were all finished."

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Pistol offense has a ground-floor start at Nevada

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 - 7:37 am

The origin of the pistol formation can be traced seven years ago to pieces of white tape on a blue carpet at the University of Nevada.

Chris Ault, a College Football Hall of Fame coach unafraid of change and challenge, was surrounded by his assistants as he hustled around the room, moving tape that served as players from one spot to another.

A mixture of excitement and doubt filled the room.

Ault pioneered the pistol formation and the read-option offense – allowing the quarterback to hand the ball off, throw it or tuck it away and run – and now marvels at how it was initially slow to fire. Once it did, the pistol reshaped Nevada football, electrified the college landscape and has added a new element of excitement to the NFL.

In San Francisco, the 49ers are one victory away from the Super Bowl behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is running the read-option offense he learned under Ault.

Ault said the rise of the pistol has "been the great thrill of coaching for me. It's pretty special to see what's going on."

Ault stepped down as Nevada's coach following the 2012 season and now proudly watches as NFL teams use portions of his pistol.

But about those modest beginnings … .

"We used helmets, towels and a lot of tape," Ault recalled amid laughter over the phone this week. "I kept moving that tape to get the distance between the quarterback and running back just right. We had nothing to look at, no gauge. No film, no photos, because it'd never been run before. And I'm not the smartest guy, so believe me, we kept practicing it."

Ault was greeted by raised eyebrows from his staff that first day.

"They thought I'd lost it," Ault said. "I'm sure when we were done with that first meeting, they went out and got their résumés ready. They thought we were all finished."

The first spring practice was more Keystone Kop-chaos than a well-run offense. Those early Nevada practices in 2005 saw the ball snapped every which way. Centers weren't used to a shorter snap. The skill players weren't sure where to line up. The running back wasn't sure whether to run right or left. Ault never wavered.

"Footballs were going all over the place," former Wolf Pack and Arkansas assistant Chris Klenakis recalled.

The pistol is a hybrid of the shotgun. The quarterback stands four yards behind the line of scrimmage, not seven like the shotgun.

In its infancy, Ault and his staff experimented with how far back to line up the quarterback. Four yards? Five? Six? With the tailback right behind him, would there be enough room to hand off without a collision? The pistol idea is to give the quarterback a quick scan of coverages and passing lanes, and it allows the back to see running lanes, too, and take a handoff with momentum.

And the pistol name?

"I liked the name of it because it fires straight ahead, one bullet, and it still gives you that straight-ahead, north-south running attack that I like," Ault said. "But at first, the pistol here was ugly, ugly, ugly. It took time, then there was a sliver of hope. Thank God, I stayed with it. I never blinked, never looked back.

"We ran the wing-T here for years, then the one-back set, then the pistol, and we loved making changes, having fun, winning," Ault continued. "With the pistol, I knew I needed something completely different to get us going again. I needed to reinvent myself and to reinvent Nevada football."

And if it didn't work? If the pistol misfired instead of hitting a bull's- eye?

"I knew I had to stick with my guns," Ault said. "We had to change here. Either sink or swim with this. Make it happen or get out. It was that simple."

By the end of the 2005 season, the pistol was in play. Nevada clinched a share of the Western Athletic Conference.

Nevada was the only school to offer Kaepernick, a baseball prospect from Turlock with a 92-mph fastball, a scholarship to play football in 2006.

In 2009, Nevada became the first team in NCAA history to field three 1,000-yard rushers, including Kaepernick. The Wolf Pack went 13-1 in 2010, it's greatest season. By the end of his career at Nevada, Kaepernick was the first player in NCAA history to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 in his career.

Ault said the 49ers have the ideal triggerman in Kaepernick for the pistol – a big player who can run and throw. And one other element: instinct.

"Kap's very instinctive," Ault said. "It's a natural instinct for Kap with the pistol. He certainly believes in it. He's put a stamp on it."

Kaepernick became the 49ers' starting quarterback midway though his second NFL season and will start in Sunday's NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. On the pistol and 49ers' success, he said: "It's everything I could've ever wished for."

Ault said he was awestruck as he watched Kaepernick rip apart the Packers last Saturday in a 45-31 divisional playoff win.

"Incredible what he did," Ault said.

But can the pistol continue to evolve in the pro game?

"There's been so many years of, 'That will never work in the NFL; you wait and see – they'll try it and get crushed like the run-and-shoot did,' " said NFL analyst and former 49ers center Randy Cross. "Nobody has a solution (to the pistol) right now. No one has a template to look at and go, 'That's how you stop it.'

"Right now, they don't know."

Ault does know this. Change is good in football, at all levels.

"The idea in the NFL that you can't use a quarterback who can run, or a young quarterback like RG3 (Washington's Robert Griffin III) or (Russell) Wilson in Seattle or Kap, it's gone and gone for good," Ault said.

"I hope coaches at all levels say, 'If they can do the pistol, we can do it.' Don't be stale on offense. As football coaches, we're grinders and copiers of what others do."

At 68, Ault said he would like to work with coaches at all levels on the pistol.

"I have stepped down at Nevada, but I haven't retired from football," Ault said. "I'm not going to go fishing. I'm not golfing. I'm a coach. I want to keep my hand in football. If there's a need for a consultant, or to run clinics … I'd love to see this really evolve. There's so much more to do with the pistol."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Joe Davidson



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