by Neil Patrick Healy
Ten years ago in the spring of 2005, Nevada junior quarterback Jeff Rowe (2002-2006) and junior center Jimmy Wadhams (2002-2006) were alone in the locker room. The two were talking and throwing around a towel wrapped with duct tape when Hall of Fame head football coach Chris Ault walked in. Rowe and Wadhams didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to change Nevada’s program forever and revolutionize the entire football landscape.
“Coach came in and he told me to line up three and a half yards behind Jimmy,” Rowe said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK? What are we doing here?’ and he handed Jimmy the towel wrapped in duct tape and told him to snap it to me. It was a perfect snap and Ault goes, ‘Great! Now let me find a football!’ We had four perfect snaps in a row and Ault yelled, ‘That’s it! We’re doing it!’ and he ran out of the locker room while Jimmy and I stood there wondering what we were doing.”
What they were doing was something Ault concocted in the depths of his mind — the pistol offense. Many football fans know the pistol because of former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick (2007-2010) and his success in college and early in his NFL career, but the offense has taken the football world by storm. From Pop Warner to the NFL, the pistol has changed how coaches approach offenses. To appreciate the pistol’s impact, it is important to know why an offense that started in a University of Nevada locker room is so effective and why it’s different from other offenses.
The pistol is a combination of the single-back and the shotgun offense. Unlike the shotgun where the quarterback lines up around five to seven yards behind the center, the quarterback lines up only four yards behind the center. The running back lines up around two and a half or three yards behind the quarterback. According to Ault, these small variations were more effective for what he wanted to do in terms of establishing the run.
“The main reason I created the pistol is to be able to run the ball downhill and have the running back running north and south rather than east and west,” Ault said. “I wanted to keep the features of the one-back offense that were so good for us because we were such a potent offense. I never wanted to move the running back, and I had him seven yards from the ball and two and a half yards behind the quarterback.”
The running back lining up behind the quarterback is the pistol’s main feature, and it opens up more options in the running game.
“The biggest difference in the pistol is that the running back lines up directly behind the quarterback,” said former Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo (20011-2014). “The biggest pro to this is the fact that the running back can actually run right and left as opposed to the original shotgun when the running back aligns on one side and he can only run the ball one way. The back lined up behind the quarterback keeps defenses on their toes.”
When it comes to the pistol, the ingenuity is in its simplicity and how easy it is to adapt to. Rowe, who was the pistol’s first ever signal caller, had no trouble picking up the brand new offense.
“I think the adjustment to the pistol was very simple, which is why I think it is so special,” Rowe said. “In the shotgun catching the snap is similar, and under center some of the footwork is similar. I think it was such an easy transition, which is why I think it has taken off so well, especially at the high school level. The snap is easier, but you get all the same stuff you get with the shotgun.”
To understand the importance of the pistol for the Nevada program, one must understand the times in which Ault invented it. Nevada moved up to division 1-A in 1992 and the football team was running the one-back offense. The Pack had great success throwing the ball and was among the nation’s leaders in passing, but after Ault stepped away from coaching after the 1995 season, the football program slipped to mediocrity. From 1996 to 2003, Nevada went 39-53 and fired two head coaches before Ault retook the helm in 2004. Ault knew he had to change something in order to bring Nevada back.
“I brought out the pistol in the spring of 2005 and there was no film to study and no one to talk with that could help me,” Ault said. “I had just begun to coach again and I was trying to build and bring back the program again. It was a calculated risk, but I wanted to create something that was ours — something that was Nevada’s.”
Both Rowe and the assistant coaches were apprehensive as they began to work with the new offense that spring, but Ault made the pistol work for Nevada. The Pack went 9-3 in the pistol’s debut season and won the WAC championship. Senior running back B.J. Mitchell ran for 1,399 yards and 12 touchdowns and won the conference player of the year award. Rowe ended up being a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2007 NFL draft.
The pistol magic would only get better. From 2007 to 2010 when Kaepernick ran the show, Nevada had eight 1,000-yard rushers (running backs Luke Lippincott in 2007 and 2009, Vai Taua in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and Kaepernick in 2008, 2009, and 2010). Not to be outdone in the passing game, Kaepernick threw for over 10,000 yards in his four-year career with 82 touchdowns and only 24 interceptions. He went on to become the first quarterback in college football history to pass for over 9,000 yards and rush for over 3,000 yards in a career. Only one quarterback has been able to join that club since, who happens to be Fajardo after his senior season in 2014. In 2012, running back Stefphon Jefferson (2009-2012) set the Nevada single season rushing record with 1,883 yards and ran for 24 touchdowns.
Success happened quickly, but all the ideas for the offense didn’t appear at once. Ault thought it wise not to throw all of his ideas out in the open early.
“The first two years the emphasis was on getting the run game to the point where it helps the passing game because the other team has to stop the run,” Ault said. “The second phase in 2008 was to increase our play action passing production. The third phase was when we added the read option, and that took off in 2009 when we had three 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield. The offense wasn’t all introduced in the first year, but it was phased in.”
With all of the success Nevada was having while using the pistol, it didn’t take long for other teams to adopt it. Ault has seen his offense used by many different teams including the 2007 national champion LSU tigers. In the film room, Ault has watched game tape and given lectures to big-name head coaches including Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Jim Harbaugh when he was at Stanford.
When Ault finally stepped down after the 2012 season, there was concern if newly hired head coach Brian Polian would keep the offense that put the Wolf Pack on the map. When asked about the idea of changing the offense in an interview with ESPN in 2013, Polian made the first wise choice of his head-coaching career.
“It wasn’t even a thought,” Polian said on changing the offense. “When I was first approached about the job, I didn’t even consider changing the offense. It’s very effective and distinguishes us from everyone else. With the amount of exposure Kap got, you can walk into any high school and mention Nevada and recruits immediately say, ‘Pistol.’ Plus, I’m a believer in it, philosophically, so it made sense.”
Despite all the success in the college ranks and it’s growing popularity in the NFL, Ault says the biggest impact has been felt in the high school ranks.
“Go watch high school football on Friday nights and they’re all running the pistol,” Ault said. “During spring football we used to scrimmage at other high schools around the area, but after a while we had to keep our practices on campus because so many high school coaches were coming out to watch. We let high school coaches sit in our meetings and that’s when I noticed that there was such a great interest.”
McQueen High School head football coach Jim Snelling took over a program that has won six state championships since 1990, but hasn’t had the same quality of athletes in terms of size. Snelling saw the pistol as a remedy for that.
“At the high school level, you have to adjust the kind of schemes based on the type of athletes you have,” Snelling said. “We were always more of a two-back offense because we were bigger on the offensive line, but we haven’t been as big the past few years. We’re trying to get the ball into our best athletes’ hands and spread the defense out of the box more, and the pistol makes is easier to do that.”
Ten years after the test run with Rowe in the locker room, the pistol has become synonymous with Nevada football. Ault has been touring high schools and colleges around the country, has watched film with NFL coaches and has even made trips to Europe to give seminars on his creation. With all the success of the pistol throughout football, the distinction and benefits go back to Nevada.
“The pistol made the Nevada football program relevant nationally,” Ault said. “We as a program were able to blow up because of all the attention. Every year we had media coming to cover our games whether we were winning the conference or not. It was a great time for Nevada.”
Former Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson says that the Pistol not only gave Nevada media attention, but it also gave it its identity.
“The pistol is a stamp for who we are and what we stand for,” Jefferson said. “We’re a team that gets down and dirty and tries to win games. Coach Ault always told us, ‘Do your one-elevens,’ which means there’s eleven of us on the field, and if you do your job, and if everyone does their job we will be successful.”
The pistol offense has forever changed football. Not only at Nevada, but at all levels of the game. What will happen in the next 10 years? Well, nobody’s quite sure. What Ault and other former players and coaches love about the pistol is that coaches are adding their own personality to the offense, but Nevada will always have the bragging rights of being the birthplace of the pistol offense.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NP_Healy.