Oregon head coach Chip Kelly has received a great deal of well-deserved praise for his explosive offense, and NFL teams — starting with the New England Patriots — have taken notice and are adapting their systems to a rapid-fire set of schemes that allow for an unusually high number of plays, first downs, and touchdowns. That’s why Kelly is such a hot name on the list of potential NFL coaching candidates. But if we’re looking at college coaches — true innovators — who have caught the NFL’s eye, there’s another name, far more under the radar, that will receive recognition and opportunity this offseason.
Chris Ault, the recently retired head coach of the Nevada Wolfpack, might be on a fast track to the NFL. More than anything else, that would happen because the Pistol offense, the series of formations and concepts Ault put together in 2005, has taken the NFL by relative storm. At his retirement press conference in late December, Ault said that he had not ruled out other coaching opportunities.
When you watch the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins in Sunday afternoon’s wild-card matchup, you’ll see a lot of the Pistol, the formation that puts the quarterback four yards behind the center, and the halfback three yards behind the quarterback. The Redskins have expanded their Pistol repertoire with multi-back formations and pre-snap motion, and the Seahawks have developed a new and recent effectiveness with the Pistol, especially in the running game.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the one most tied to Ault’s system, because he ran it for Ault at Nevada from 2007 through 2010, and became the first NCAA player to throw for over 10,000 yards and run for more than 4,000 yards in his collegiate football career. And 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman traveled to talk with Ault about the Pistol when Roman was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford.
“About three years ago, (I) made the trek to Nevada and visited with him and his staff,” Roman told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area in Mid-December. “That was very valuable time spent. He was very accommodating and it was very interesting as a coach to go really learn something totally new. And he’s a very good football coach … So it was good.”
The 49ers had just bedazzled the Patriots in a Week 15 Sunday Night Football win in which they ran a ridiculous number of Pistol sets, motioning into and out of multi-back and empty-backfield formations before the snap.
So, we know that the Pistol can work with the right mindset and commitment. The first NFL coach to use it frequently was recently -fired Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey, who set it up as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator in 2008. With injuries to his top two quarterbacks, Gailey inserted third-stringer Tyler Thigpen, put together a new game plan which he recently told me was based on his study of Nevada tape, and led the Chiefs to a month-long stretch of unusual offensive efficiency.
Where this puts Ault in NFL circles as an offensive resource is unquestioned — it’s entirely possible that more NFL coaches are using and benefitting from his philosophies right now than from Kelly’s. Might that lead NFL teams to look to Ault as an offensive coordinator? Teams looking to master the league’s hottest offensive trend would do well to go straight to the source.
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