The shotgun offense scattered the ball around the field. But what if the primary threat in Nevada’s new base formation came from one player, a mobile quarterback who could also pass? Ault didn’t know exactly how it would look, but whenever he resumed coaching, at least he had a name.
“With the ‘Pistol,’ ” Ault said, “it’s one bullet.”
Nearly eight years after its creation, the Pistol offense has swept through college football and become popular among NFL teams. The Washington Redskins won the NFC East using rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III as their primary bullet, and they’re not alone in adopting Ault’s invention. The Carolina Panthers have used it with Cam Newton, and even the Pittsburgh Steelers tinkered with it. Now, the San Francisco 49ers and second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick — Ault’s former protege at Nevada — have ridden Ault’s creation to the Super Bowl.
In the early days, the coach kept it secret. He summoned his running backs coach into a room, putting white adhesive tape on the floor to represent positions and movements. Ault didn’t bother telling his offensive coordinator — or many others, for that matter.
“I never let anybody see us,” Ault said, “because I thought they’d have me committed.”
Slowly, his idea began to make sense. In the traditional shotgun, the running back lines up to the left or right of the quarterback, restricting the direction the back is likely to go — and giving the defense a hint. By “hiding” the back — moving him a few yards behind the quarterback — defenses were left to guess. Who could tell which direction a player would run or, to complicate things further, who would even have the ball?
Ault began introducing wrinkles, including pre-snap movement and the zone-read option. His other assistant coaches were let in on the secret, and after the skepticism faded, hope took its place.
“I just loved it,” Ault said, “because there are so many things you can do.”
That season, the Wolf Pack went 9-3, averaged 449.3 yards in total offense, and went to a bowl game for the first time in nearly a decade. Ault was named the Western Athletic Conference’s coach of the year, but his proudest moment came when an opposing coach told a reporter that, indeed, it sure was difficult to see the running back in that Nevada offense.
In February 2006, Ault signed a skinny kid named Kaepernick to a football scholarship. No other school took the same risk. Kaepernick ran the Wing-T in high school, threw with a sidearm motion, and as Ault recalled last week, the youngster wasn’t exactly an athletic specimen. But Ault figured that, if nothing else, he could move the youngster to free safety or wide receiver.