Systems Analyst: The Pistol, Pro-Style, and Triple Option Offenses

As Chuck Klosterman explained Thursday on Grantland, NFL coaches have left much of the extreme offensive innovation to their college counterparts in recent years. Disparate talent levels and resources have encouraged creativity in college football, and defensive ends that don’t look like this have allowed those innovations to be successful.

With the college football season fast approaching its conference-season stride, here are a few of the other notable offensive philosophies dotting the landscape.

The Pistol

One of the most noteworthy additions to college (and pro) playbooks in the last decade wasn’t the brainchild of some hotshot young assistant, but of a coach in his 50s, who was in his third stint at his alma mater.

Chris Ault was in his second season as Nevada’s coach when he came to spring practice in 2005 with something new. Rather than line up in the shotgun with a running back next to the quarterback, Ault proposed the quarterback line up four yards deep in the backfield with the running back directly behind him.

“[My assistants] thought I’d lost my mind,” said Ault, who also previously served as school’s athletic director.

“The problem we had is that there’s no film. There was nothing to look at. There was nobody to talk to. I took my coaches down to the locker room, and we taped off the locker room for where certain backs would be and actually walked through what I felt was going to be the pistol offense. We went out there the first week, and it was about as ugly and discombobulated as the L.A. freeway. Every once in a while, you saw a spark of something, and by the end of that spring, we weren’t great, but we though, ‘Ya know what? There’s some benefit to this thing.’”

The benefit has been a record-setting rush offense that has consistently been among the sport’s elite since the “pistol” offense’s inception. In 2009, Nevada became the first school to have three backs rush for 1,000 yards, and last season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick helped the Wolfpack top the nation with 7,268 total yards.

“I think the major difference in the shotgun and the pistol is that in the shotgun, you’re going east-west,” Ault said. “In the pistol, you’re going north-south. You get the ball deeper to the back faster.

“When the back lines up three yards behind the quarterback, it’s tough to see him when he makes jab steps, counter steps. Linebackers might have to take a split second more to determine which side we’re running the ball to. What I like is that both sides are readily available in terms of what we’re trying to do.”

Ault’s creation has gained a few followers in the past five years, including the Kansas City Chiefs, who tossed it into their playbooks in 2008.

“We sold it to [our players] saying, ‘Listen, we want to make our own mark. We want to reinvent ourselves. We want to the be the University of Nevada and the pistol offense.’”


Even with all the scheming that goes into college offenses, there are still programs heavily influenced by the pro game. The notoriously wide-branching coaching tree of West Coast guru Bill Walsh has its share of members in the collegiate ranks, and at Stanford, Walsh’s influence is combined with other coaching legends like Don Coryell.

“We run our version of the West Coast offense here at Stanford, and that’s just the terminology that’s universal throughout the NFL,” Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “How we call our plays, the terminology we use to call our plays, and more importantly, the multiplicity of what we do [is similar to the NFL] — lot of formations, shifts, starting mostly with two-back sets.”

Hamilton spent almost a decade as an assistant in the NFL, including stints under former Walsh disciple Paul Hackett and Coryell pupil Norv Turner. The result is an offense that carries principles from each of the two systems while using West Coast terminology, notably the monologue-length play calls.

“In layman’s terms, the way we would call a play would be, ‘I-right, slot, power right, check-with me, fox 2, double go, combat, horse 2, spider, Y banana,’” Hamilton said. “Those are universal West Coast terms. There are different layers to a play call, and the look we get from the defense is ultimately going to dictate which play we choose to run.”

Including formations, Stanford has about 1,000 different play options and will take about 300 to 350 concepts into a game.

“I would go out on a limb to say we’re able to do just as much here as any of the NFL teams I’ve been with just because of the mental aptitude and the amount of information our guys can retain and process,” Hamilton said.

Mimicking an NFL offense is a bit easier when it involves the most NFL-ready quarterback in recent memory. Hamilton says Stanford’s use of its tight ends gives the Cardinal a similar look to the Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints, but having Andrew Luck under center gives the unit a distinctly professional feel.

“I’ve had Andrew spend most of this offseason studying Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers — the guys who play from the pocket.

“The quarterback [he probably resembles] more than anybody, and somebody I’ve had him watch a lot of is Troy Aikman. Andrew’s a lot like Troy Aikman — great athlete, good feet, good balance in his drops. “

Triple Option

Like Maine Maritime Academy, Navy’s offense is built around the triple option. As Klosterman noted, use of the option has mostly been relegated service academies. With fitness requirements limiting the size of possible recruits, schools like Navy use option to maximize their resources.

“This sounds like clinic talk, but we have to balance the playing field,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. “We’re not a BCS school; we don’t get those kinds of players. But we do compete against some of those teams.”

In recent years, “compete” is a kind way to put what the Midshipmen have done to the likes of Wake Forest, Missouri, and Notre Dame. The Irish have dropped two straight to Navy, and in their first game of 2009, the Midshipmen pushed Ohio State to a 31-27 finish in Columbus.

As South Carolina prepares for Navy this week, they will rely on scout teams that have gone through a few dozen repetitions of an offense they barely know. When the Gamecocks line up across from Navy on Saturday, they will see a unit that has practiced the same basic motions thousands of times over.

“I think the hardest thing for people is that you don’t see it week in and week out,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Defensive coordinators know how to stop it. They know how to play against it. But you’re not seeing it every week. It takes away your instincts as a defender.

“It’s like the old Princeton [basketball] offense — four corners, backdooring everybody,” Jasper said. “That’s how they slowed the game down and made other teams one-dimensional.”

Robert Mays is an editor for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @RealRobertMays.

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Filed Under: Andrew Luck, College Football, Kansas City Chiefs, Stanford

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays