The Cougars' offensive playbook may be expanding.
When Mike Leach hired running backs coach Jim Mastro, co-innovator of the Pistol offense at Nevada under head coach Chis Ault, sirens went off across the college football landscape. Spencer Hall thought it was notable. So did Chris Brown (this is a great article, full of links about the Pistol and video of Leach talking about it). Our own Brian Floyd offered his thoughts in an introduction piece, and a more thought out piece on what we could see offensively.
How exactly Coach Leach would assimilate this read-option style rushing philosophy into his Air Raid was intriguing. "Pistol" is not only the name of a formation, but an offensive philosophy all it's own. As noted by Chris Brown, Dana Holgorsen - a Leach Air Raid disciple - tried to integrate the Pistol set in his offenses at both Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Would Leach only use the formation as wrinkle to keep his offensive sets fresh, or would he implement some of the play designs as well?
Needless to say, whatever grand plans the two coaches had about scheme, we didn't see it last year. WSU abandoned the Pistol set a few games into the season, and went on to be the least productive rushing unit in the nation. Despite that and with the success of the Pistol for Washington and San Franscisco, Coach Mastro was courted during the off-season by some NFL teams to help coach against the scheme. He turned them down, saying (via Bruce Feldman) as long as Colin Kapernick was in the NFL, he wouldn't teach teams how to defend the Pistol.
Brian Floyd read that as loyalty, not only to his former player, but to Coach Leach. But beyond that loyalty, Leach and Mastro likely had a vision for how these offenses would merge and just hadn't had the opportunity to try it yet. This was probably due to personnel. Whatever they wanted to try, they didn't feel they had the right players for it to be successful.
We may get an introduction to that vision next fall, perhaps a sign Leach and Mastro think they have the personnel.
WSU RB coach Jim Mastro tells me he and Mike Leach spent time this Spring meshing air raid concepts from Pistol formations. Oh boy.— Mike Kuchar (@MikekKuchar) May 6, 2013
What can we possibly expect?
We wouldn't anticipate a read-option run being the center of the rushing game, which really isn't in Connor Halliday's wheelhouse, although Austin Apodaca or incoming freshman Isaac Dotson could have some success with it. While that may be in the pipeline, it's not likely to be a major focus next season.
WSU ran fly or "jet" sweeps to Gabe Marks last year, something the Pistol uses heavily, opening some more intricate play action and counters off of it. Coach Leach could relatively easily adjust the existing fly sweep plays to run from a Pistol set. Same for the typical belly, counter, and zone runs.
WSU also ran a lot of two back sets last season; changing the formation to Pistol could make it easier to integrate play action (while still making quick throws) and allow draws to be more effective, holding linebackers accountable by limiting their ability to take coverage drops.
Pistol has a read option pass where the QB and RB option a defensive end and wide receivers are in route. The QB can hand the ball off, or pull it and hit a receiver. From smartfootball.com, teams are beginning to branch out from the traditional Stick/Draw, Stick/Screen and zone bubble packages with the read option. Leach could incorporate his mesh, shallow cross, stick, option or any other short to intermediate Air Raid concept in this read option package. The QB is less of a running threat and more of a quick thinking distributor. This is essentially play action, a way to control the linebacker coverage, with the added bonus of run optioning a defensive end/linebacker.
Whether it's adapting traditional Air Raid plays to Pistol offensive sets, integrating some Pistol offensive play designs, or combining the two schemes, Coach Leach and Coach Mastro are up to something. And that should be very exciting for Coug fans.