Chris Ault reinvented a program he coached on-and-off for three decades when he developed the Pistol offense. He also changed the look of the sport.
The career arc of Nevada head coach Chris Ault is very strange indeed. One of the game's elder statesman -- he turned 66 last month -- Ault is about as far from an opportunistic job-hopper as the profession has. He began coaching the Wolf Pack in 1976, before Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez started high school.
Ault saw a Division II, then Division I-AA program formerly known as Nevada-Reno to seven NCAA Playoffs, four Big Sky Conference championships and one national title game. He then led the Pack into the brave new world of Division I-A, later FBS. The move was a trying one for the program after Ault's retirement in 1995.
Ault needed to make a desperate change as he watched his alma mater languish in mediocrity -- no easy prospect for a coach in his late 50s who spent nine years off the sideline. What he devised was a weapon that changed both Wolf Pack football, and offenses around the nation.
The Pistol was born in 2004. Necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps nowhere more than on the football field. Ault conceived the formation for the same reason any offense is system is developed: to give the offense a schematic advantage (not of the Charlie Weis variety, but more legitimately) against defenses accustomed to defending the Pro Set.
Ault's brainchild combined elements of the spread offense, which was not yet the widespread phenomenon it is today, with facets of the Power-I. Rather than line up directly behind center, or a shotgun's length of seven yards back, the Pistol split the difference.
SilverAndBlueSports.com explains with the quarterback moved up, but the running back still lined up seven yards behind center, the formation gives the ball carrier more room to build momentum. This season, that has manifested in running back Stefphon Jefferson averaging 141.9 yards per game -- second only to Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.
Mobile quarterbacks give the Pistol zone-read options reminiscent of the Wildcats' offense. No quarterback has mastered the nuances of the Pistol more than Colin Kaepernick, who led Nevada to a 12-1 finish and top 10 ranking in 2010. Ault's influence can now be seen on Sundays in the NFL, with Jim Harbaugh employing elements of it to accentuate Kaepernick's talent for the San Francisco 49ers.
Since the Pistol's inception, the Pack has routinely ranked among the country's best rushing teams.
2005: 199.5 YPG, No. 22
2006: 170.2 YPG, No. 24
2007: 214.1 YPG, No. 12
2008: 277.8 YPG, No. 3
2009: 344.9 YPG, No. 1
2010: 292.1 YPG, No. 3
2011: 247.5 YPG, No. 8
2012: 260 YPG, No. 7
Cody Fajardo stepped into the enormous shoes Kaepernick left in Reno, and has performed well in his two seasons. Fajardo has rushed for just under 1000 yards on the year and 11 touchdowns, but his accurate passing gives the Pack an added element producing 37 points per game.
The Pistol is hardly a one dimensional formation. This season, Nevada averages more than 230 yards passing per game. The Pack passed for nearly 260 yards per a season ago. The system's use of varied wide receiver and tight end formations gives it a diversified look.
Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel could bring aggressive blitz packages to contain Jefferson in the backfield. Nevada has allowed 72 tackles for loss on the year. However, the danger in doing so is Fajardo going to the air against single coverage.
Ault's success using the formation did not go unnoticed. Coaches around the nation have tried to co-opt the Pistol for their own use. Rick Neuheisel brought it to UCLA, and the new coaching staff retained elements of it. Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell introduced a version of it in Tempe.
Kaepernick's aforementioned involvement in the 49er offense is just one recent example of Ault's idea making its way to the professional game. Ault may not have many more years left in his third and likely final run coaching the Wolf Pack, but thanks to his concept, his impact on the game will endure.
Rodriguez and Ault squaring off in Saturday's New Mexico Bowl is a meeting of offensive innovators. Ault has stayed relevant in a game where coaches are cycled through more than a freshman changes socks by redefining his strategy. He's run the Wing T, Run-and-Shoot and Pro Set before installing the Pistol.
Rodriguez innovated the zone-read spread option at Glenville State, brought it to West Virginia and rebuilt that program, an has adapted it at Arizona.
With two potent and innovative offenses on the field in Albuquerque, expect a shootout. Ault will be ready, packing a Pistol.