The pads go on Friday for the third day of spring football at Arkansas. It's the one I've been waiting for this winter. I want to see this veteran Arkansas offensive line hit in the The Pistol formation with the running game stuff added by new assistant coach Chris Klenakis.
I love the Xs and Os of football, the subtle tweaks you can make in strategies and plans in what is the ultimate team sport. I'm fascinated by The Pistol and how it might help this Arkansas football team climb to the SEC mountaintop.
Klenakis, along with Nevada-Reno head coach Chris Ault, invented The Pistol in the spring of 2005 and it's been almost unstoppable as a ground gobbling offense ever since.
"What The Pistol gives you," Klenakis said, "is the advantage of having the quarterback at shotgun depth so he's back there for the pass game and is able to see everything, but by placing the running back behind the quarterback you are still able to run your traditional downhill plays like you do in an I-formation.
"You can run the powers, counters, gaps, isolations -- things you do in a power running game formation that you can't do in a shotgun with the back upset you can do in The Pistol."
No one has stopped it much in the five years they have used it at Nevada.
"We put it in during the winter of 2005," Klenakis said. "We knew we had to get the shotgun effects in our passing game, but we didn't want to lose our downhill running style with our old winged-T mentality and so this became a marriage of the two.
"We went that first spring of 2005. We committed to it. That's the best thing we did because it wasn't pretty at first. There was a lot of trial and error because it hadn't been done before. We weren't sure of the depth of the where the back should be, the quarterback should be or the run timings. We had to do it on the fly as you well know in the winter you don't get to work with your athletes with the football.
"We had no clue. We kinda guessed until the first day of spring ball when we had 15 practices to adjust. The good thing we didn't give up. We kept after it. So when spring ball ended we had a very good idea of where to go with it from there. That's how it grew."
The summer tape review was critical.
"We did a lot of tweaking that summer," Klenakis said. "That fall we were able to win a championship that first year with The Pistol. Then, it's grown every year since then."
It was a dynamic running formation from the get go. Klenakis doesn't think it is really similar to any other offensive system.
"It's a pretty unique deal," he said. "I don't know what it compares to. It gives you the availability to have downhill runs in a shotgun formation."
Is it a help for the linemen or the back?
"I think it helps the back a bunch," he said. "I think he gets the football a lot deeper. He's able to set up his blocks. He's able to get a relationship with his blockers. And I think it helps the linemen from that respect because the back gets better vision, is able to see walls and alleys in the run game. In the perimeter game, it helps the back get a better relationship with his pullers, especially since we are able to pull our center in this offense. That enables us to get two guys out front, a guard and a center. The center has time to snap and pull. The dynamics of that area really help.
Parts of the running game at Nevada sometimes resembled the old Washington Redskins counter trey with two pullers, including the center, over populating the weakside on outside runs. The Wolf Pack had a devastating perimeter running game under Klenakis.
"Very observant," Klenakis said. "We did have some elements of the old Redskins power run game. I know their former O-line coach Jim Hanifan very well. He was a great one. I had just the good fortune of knowing him forever and he taught me some things about offensive line play. I've learned a lot of that counter trey run game from Jim."
The Wolf Pack still had an effective throwing game despite dominating with the running out of The Pistol. Ault was not going to move away from the pass, much like Petrino is going to still throw. Plenty.
"It really helped the play action," Klenakis said. "The run game got so good that the play-action REALLY got better. Plus, come to find out -- we didn't know this at the start -- our defensive guys were really complaining that you couldn't find the running back. They didn't know if it was run or pass because the running back was getting lost behind the quarterback. You can't see it.
"I never thought that would be part of the deal, that the linebackers couldn't find the back. It was had on them to get their keys. It just worked out that way."
Klenakis wouldn't say what the Hogs would do with The Pistol in 2010.
"I'm committed to whatever the head coach is committed to," he said. "I'm a good soldier and whatever he wants to commit to I'll work my tail end off to get it done.
"I'm here to coach those boys up, and, like I said, whatever the head coach wants, I'm going to do. That direction will be the right direction. I'm excited to follow his lead and get with it. He has a great ability to see the little things that many don't see. He has the ability to see how a subtle change in a route changes coverages and reads for the defense and gets someone open. Most don't have that ability. I'm excited to follow his lead."
Since Klenakis and Summers both teach the weak-strong system, there will be a lot of carryover in the spring as far as offensive line play.
"The biggest changes will be just techniques," he said. "My techniques in the hip progressions are really different. There are a hundred ways to skin a cat. The way I go about skinning the cat are a little different. They've got to learn my fundamentals and techniques. That way they can all step and fire out in unison."
Some aspects will be easy, though. Klenakis said the Petrino way is already there.
"These kids have a great foundation," Klenakis said. "One thing that has already been established is the work ethic. Coach Petrino has established work ethic in the program. That makes my job a lot easier. My job is to teach a few new techniques and fine tune some skills. The foundation is there. That's nice."
Petrino's way includes flipping the weak and strong side of the line.
"I've always flipped," he said. "I believe in it. It helps your teaching. It cuts it in half. They are only going to get certain looks. The strong side and the tight end side is only going to get certain looks to that side. The weak, the open or the quick has only a few ways the defense can line up to them. So you get more repetition and more skill specific. Certain guards get more pulling. Others get more cutoff blocks. It's really position specific.
"It cuts pass pro in half. Pass pro are based to the quick side or the strong side. At least the kids don't have to learn two sets of rules when they are on the strong or weak side. It cuts the rules in half for pass pro. That's why I enjoy it. You spend more time on fundamentals and less time learning scheme."
The matchups can be dictated by the play and formation, in the mind of the playcaller. Petrino is a master of that and has added a line coach who was doing the same thing at Nevada as offensive coordinator in Klenakis.
Klenakis is excited to see his group on the field in spring ball. He has seen them in the weight room.
"I'll learn more when we get on the field, but I can tell you this, they have great work ethic and are strong," he said. "These kids are a lot stronger than what I'm used to working with. That's no insult to the kids I had. They were great kids and played extremely hard, but these young men here are stronger. Coach (Jason) Veltkamp has done a great job and they are strong. They work hard every day. If you are the offensive line coach, you are excited about that."
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