Pre-Camp Q&A with Mastro

Jim Mastro is, in title, the UCLA Tight Ends and F-Backs Coach, but he has such a bigger influence on the new UCLA offense, with Mastro being the maestro of the Pistol. He talked to us about it, its development, the personnel he has to plug into it, and more...

BRO: The first thing that I wanted to talk to you about is the formation, the Pistol. In football, everything seems to get gets recycled, get renamed. But to be able to really put something new together, that must be a fascinating process …

JM: It is. It's a fun process because there are so many things you can do out of it. And you just want to be careful you don't try to do too much. You want to keep it simple. But, yeah, you always have to reinvent yourself a little bit every year and kind of keep up with the Jones's. So, that's been the great thing about coming here – you get to do some things that maybe you didn't get to do at the last place and you get to do them here. That's been a lot of fun.

BRO: When you first saw a picture of it, I mean …

JM: I thought we were nuts. But, you know, as you look at it and study it, you go into it every day with an open mind, and then you realize what we had with it. It didn't take us very long to realize we had something pretty special, and we kept making it better and making it better and made it one of the best offenses around.

BRO: You also had some pretty good players for that system …

JM: Sure, but the thing that people forget about is when we first put it in, we had a drop back quarterback, you know, we didn't run any zone read. It was just a pure one-back offense out of the Pistol and we went 9-3. People, they want to think it was all because of what we had this last couple of years, but before we had that … it's just the diversity out of it, you make defenses have to be really sound, have to tackle well. You make them be accountable on defense. That's what it kind of does.

BRO: OK, so when you were developing an offense out of it, the F-back, I know that position didn't get a lot of play carry-wise or reception-wise at Nevada and last year here they tried it a couple of times but didn't have a lot of success with it. Was that just an underdeveloped part of the offense, or is it maybe still developing, still evolving?

JM: No, at Nevada you really didn't have to because you had two really good running backs and a good quarterback. There were certain games when that position got a lot of carries. It all depends on what a defense is trying to do to you. Here, that position will be more involved than it has been in the past, the F position, just because of what we feel like we have out of it. But it just depends on what a defense is doing to you. Sometimes that's going to be valuable, sometimes it doesn't have to be. Here, the F here will be more utilized than the last place I was at.

BRO: When you conceptualize what an F can do, what are some of the options you like to exploit?

JM: Well, it's basically a numbers game. I mean, the quarterback comes up and counts numbers and decides which way I'm going to go. It's all by a certain look that you give. Here, because we'll throw the ball a little bit differently than we did it at the last place, we'll be able to really dictate coverages and fronts and stuff by what we're going to do, by formation. That's what I like about it.

BRO: When you look at the position, what you're going to ask that F guy to do, is there a prototype?

JM: Anthony Barr is kind of what you're looking for. I mean, that's pretty athletic for that position. Nelson Rosario. There are certain guys that can play that spot. You're asking them just to be pretty smart. They don't have to be overly big and strong like a tight end, just have to be smart and athletic and we have those guys here.

BRO: With Barr and Damien Thigpen, you have two. But they're such different guys – size-wise, speed-wise, different type of runners …

JM: But you use that to your advantage. You can do the same things with both guys, like I said, because you're not asking them to be big physical bruisers. So both guys, though physically they're different, they can still do the same things for you.

BRO: There's no tell with this guy on the field as opposed to this guy?

JM: No, not at all.

BRO: When you say they can do the same things, they would do them so differently …

JM: Sure, yeah. But you're still asking them in the run game especially, you're asking them to just identify a front, you're just asking them to identify a defense. So, really, because one guy is faster, it really doesn't make a difference in the run game part of it. Now, in the pass game, sure, it makes a difference. You know what kind of routes you're going to run, what you're going to do. But as far as the run game goes, that position is pretty universal. As long as that guy is intelligent, you're OK.

BRO: So they're just looking at the same thing as the quarterback and going from there …

JM: Exactly. And they only have to look at half the field. The quarterback has to look at the whole field. That position basically just has to look at what's happening over the top of him and decide where he's going to go. It's not really complicated. It's just basically understanding your rules, and once you understand your rules everything takes care of itself.

BRO: You talk about Anthony, he's such a unique combination. You look at the running backs you have with Johnathan (Franklin) and Jordon (James) and Derrick Coleman, he's not like that. He's not a tight end, like Cory Harkey, big guy.

JM: He's a tweener. Tweener at every spot. But he's an athletic tweener. And he's tough. He's good.

BRO: It sounds like he fell into a perfect spot.

JM: No question. You couldn't ask for a better offense for him. He's going to be well used. It will be good for him.

BRO: What makes him perfect for this position?

JM: Just his size and his athleticism. If you basically said, ‘I need to mold the perfect F for this offense,' he's what you want. He's kind of what you're looking for. He can run the ball, he can catch, he can block. He's pretty fast. He's pretty smart. He can do it all. You keep him on the field, he'll do everything. That's a positive.

BRO: In talking to him when you got here, did he fully understand what this position was?

JM: Sure. He did it last year a little bit. That was the great thing about it, they had the base foundation of it and we just took it to the next level and explained the nuances of it and things like that. But he had a great understanding of it. He's a smart kid, a real smart kid.

BRO: It's those nuances, though, that are the difference maker …

JM: No question. You have to just do them, you have to live them. I've kind of lived all the mistakes and so hopefully that helps me at least explain to them why we're doing something, because I've lived all the mistakes and I've made all of them.

BRO: In passing that along to Anthony and Damien in the spring …

JM: I think the light went on. Once you're able to explain to them why it happens and why the mistakes are made, the light kind of goes on ... then it's, ‘Oh, I understand.' And, so, that helps, because at least there's knowledge of it, because like I said, I've made all the mistakes doing it and running it. I'm able to at least give them my knowledge of, hey, here's why it happens like this, this is why you do it this way, here's what we're trying to prevent. And once they saw that and understood that, the light went on, like, ‘oh, I understand.' It made it easier.

BRO: The understanding, obviously, was not at that level …

JM: Not yet. It takes two years. This offense really takes two years to understand.

BRO: Sounds like, like you said, you think of the two guys and the things they can do, getting a touch and a half a game last year probably wasn't enough …

JM: And they'll get more this year.

BRO: Tell me about Damien in the same way.

JM: He can do everything that Anthony Barr can do. You're probably not going to ask him to block as much, but he can still be your fly sweep, he can still be your vertical threat, he can still be your slip player, he can still do all that stuff, because he's just athletic as all heck. You're not losing a lot. Anthony Barr is a bigger body, but he can still do all the things you're going to ask that position to do. You've just got to basically recognize what's happening over the top and go from there.

BRO: I don't want to jinx anybody, but are two guys enough?

JM: Two is plenty. Because we'll be in so many personnel groups, with two tight end and three receivers that it will work itself out. You think you're going to prepare three guys for a game, you're wrong. You cannot, in this offense, you cannot prepare three guys to play that spot. Two is even hard. You've got to get two ready – they've got to be really good in the meetings, they've got to do a lot of good film study, because you're getting two ready. It takes time.

BRO: I was just talking about body wise, you need a third-stringer …

JM: You need a third-stringer, but he's got to prepare on his own. You need three four guys who can do it. It's a universal position, but you can't think you're going to get game ready. You can't think you're going to get three guys ready. There's no way.

BRO: Who would be your backup, your second tier guys?

JM: Third guy, you know, Joe Fauria can play that spot and probably would be a real good third because he's so smart. If you have to get to that spot in an emergency to get out of a game, if you need that guy, he could be that guy because he can do it all. He would probably be our third.

BRO: You mentioned the nuances, I mean, obviously they didn't have anyone last year with the background in the Pistol that you have, so they're running it and they're probably making some mistakes and might not recognize them as mistakes … I'm just wondering how much this offense has evolved, from the end of the season and then through the spring?

JM: Fundamentally, it was huge. And the big thing is the footwork in the backfield between the quarterback and the running back and the timing of your motions. Those things. They did it well last year, and we just got better. We fixed a few things in the spring, minor things that can become huge things if you don't fix them, and by the end of the spring I was real happy with the fundamentals in the backfield.

BRO: The timing of that, the zone read part, there were times last year where it took a long time, other times it was done much quicker. Is there a right way?

JM: It's supposed to take a long time. If it's fast that's not good. It's supposed to look deliberate. I mean, you know you're doing it right when people say, ‘That quarterback just holds the ball out there forever.' Then you know you're doing it right. When that thing happens fast, you're losing the concept of it. It's supposed to take time. It's supposed to be a deliberate, nice and slow. The word we use in the backfield is really smooth, a really smooth action in the backfield. If it happens too fast, you're losing the concept of it.

BRO: Explain that, because you want the end to come down or stay, to commit. He has to make a decision quick.

JM: And the faster you do that, that end doesn't have a chance to make a mistake. The slower and more deliberate you do it, now they have a chance, the quarterback has a chance to see it and read it.

BRO: And mixing that up, the speed of it?

JM: You don't want to do that. You want to keep it the same because you're going to do different things to that guy and you don't want him to know the difference. Sometimes you're going to block that guy, sometimes you're going to read that guy, sometimes you're going to read that guy. You want it all to look the same in the backfield, make them have to fit you perfectly, make the defense have to fit you dead perfect, because if they don't and you hand the ball off or the quarterback pulls it, it's a gash. You might go two yards, three yards, then you're going to go 40 yards. That's the nature of the beast.

BRO: There wasn't a lot of consistency there last year. How are the quarterbacks with that now? Kevin I know had some experience with it. Richard, last season, tended to get a little quick at times.

JM: Richard got a lot better in the spring toward the end with the fundamentals and he understood it better. Brett Hundley is what you want. And Kevin Prince, keep him healthy and he's what you're looking for at that position. He's fast. He's smart. He's strong. I mean, he's what you want. But you have to keep him healthy. But he and Richard, they both do it fine. I have no problems with how they read it now and they understand it. They just have to execute.

BRO: Well, in putting it all together, in the spring you had your hand in with everyone, with the quarterbacks, with the running backs, with the F-backs, the line …

JM: Yeah, I was with every group as much as I could be to just teach them the nuances of it – why it's happening the way it's happening. You know, so I spent a lot of time with the quarterbacks in the run game, a lot of time with the o-line in the run game, just to put my two cents in. ‘Guy's, here's why it's happening this way.' I've made these mistakes. This is why we're doing this. So, conceptually, they all understand now. Conceptually, they go, ‘Oh, I understand why, I get it now.'

So, that was kind of my deal, to get my knowledge to all of them and make sure they understand why we're calling certain things, why we're calling it this way, why we're getting into that formation. Well, now they all understand and that helps us, it makes the learning curve real small now where it was big in the spring. Now, toward the end of spring, it was, ‘Oh, I understand now, I know why we're in this formation, I know why you're calling this here.' That's why I kind of coached them all, as far as explaining to them all why we do it.

BRO: It might sound crazy, having played 12 games out of this formation, but where were they? How close were they do being on it?

JM: They were really good. What they did, they did it well. They just need to do more. They ran the ball really well last year – you'll take 30th in the country any day of the week. But I think what happened is, because they committed so much to it, they kind of lost sight of the passing game a little bit. They didn't spend enough time. You kind of lose your principles. You have a fine line on how much you're going to do. But conceptually last year they were good, I mean, running the ball. And I like that, because it helped me. But they have to divide their time a little bit better, throw it a little bit more.

We told them that was going to happen. It happened with us (at Nevada). You lose sight of your passing game a little bit, so this year we're really making a big emphasis on throwing the ball a lot better and throwing it more. You won't see the Pistol run game like you saw here last year or at Nevada, where you're going to run it 70 percent of the time. You're not going to have to see that. It will be more balanced.

BRO: Your pass offense out of the formation, does it have to be more Pistol-specific? They didn't change much of their passing offense last year, just the formation …

JM: It's the same thing. It's just like you're in shotgun. It's no different. It just helps the quarterback see it faster. He gets a little more depth on his drop. It's a good pass formation. Play-action is really good out of it, because the running back is hidden back there. So, that part of it, it's really good.

BRO: Let's get into the line a little bit, the tight ends … Where did they develop?

JM: I was really pleased with them. I mean, Cory Harkey is as good a blocking tight end as there is in the business. I mean, I was really impressed with him. He can hold point like nobody's business. The guy that really improved is Joe Fauria. He had an exceptional spring. I think once he understood what we wanted and understood how we wanted it done and he was going to do it our way, he was an asset in the spring. He's a big body, he's physical. I was really impressed with him. The question is we've got to find our third guy. You know, John Young got hurt. Ray Nelson is going to be a player, probably going to have to play as a freshman. In this offense, you need three tight ends, so we need to find that third guy.

BRO: John is still not quite there with the shoulder?

JM: Now if he stays healthy, he's a physical kid. But we've got to get him healthy.

BRO: How much camp does he see?

JM: Well, he said he feels good, so we're going to go. He has to go. I mean, we can't afford to not get him reps. He needs as many reps as he can get – he's raw. But when he does things right he does them well.

BRO: So on Monday, you expect he will be on the field.

JM: Yes. We were told (Tuesday) he would be fine. He might be in a brace, a harness, but that's OK.

BRO: And Nelson might have to play?

JM: I want to play him. He's good. Physical, big. He's not your typical high school senior. I mean, he's a little different creature now. I know at the last school I was at, I looked at his tape and thought, ‘Holy Cow, who is this kid?' so when I came here I was kind of glad he was here. But he's physical … our intentions are to play him this year, I know that. Now, we'll see what happens.

BRO: Well, I guess if you've seen his brother play basketball …

JM: Yeah, the genes are great, no question.

BRO: When you're putting the plan together every week, fitting the run game component into the equation, how do you see that working?

JM: Well, like, there's the Houston run game plan right there. (It's on his greaseboard). That's what we're going to do against Houston. That's what formations we like. That's kind of the order we like stuff in. So I'll just give that to Mike, probably on Monday night, say here's what I like run-wise and he'll plug it in with his passing stuff and on game day I'll just give my input on what I like where and go. It's exactly like the last school I was at – that's the same way we did it. It will work fine. It's a pretty systematic system. It's a pretty simple system. It's pretty cut and dried, run game wise. It'll fit in nicely.

BRO: Man, looking at that up there on the board, that's a lot easier with the verbiage than a West Coast system and the seemingly endless play calls …

JM: Not very hard. Very little verbiage. The offense is simple to call. Verbiage has got to be quick. At the last school I was at, if a play got too long we threw it out. We just threw it out. We didn't want all that verbiage in there.

BRO: So it really is on the players – the quarterback, the running backs …

JM: Just execute. The o-line has the easiest job in the world as far as assignment goes. They just have to execute, though. It's not hard. It's execution.

BRO: That's the one thing you want to see most in camp?

JM: Execution. Fundamental execution of the basic offense. You don't need a whole lot in this offense to be successful, but you have to execute. That's the thing about no verbiage, that's the thing about not having a whole lot of stuff for the offensive line to learn, because we're going to get good at something. You know? The last place I was at we had three run plays in a game. That's it. But we were good at those three, because that's all we did. That's what is has to be here. It's the same thing here. We're not going to do a whole lot, you know, you look at (the plays on the greaseboard) most of those plays the blocking schemes up front is exactly the same, it's just the quarterback and running back have to understand. But it's not hard. It's just fundamental execution of the basic offense.

BRO: When you look at the line play in getting this done, I mean, you have a few guys who have played a lot of games and have experience, some other guys who haven't played, some other guys who aren't maybe ready physically to really get in there and play …

JM: The success of this team this year is on that group, period. That group has got to execute. If that group will execute, this team will be really good. They are the key to this whole thing.

BRO: Do they need physically to be …

JM: They just need to be smart. They need to be tough. They need to be smart and understand where they're going and why they're going there. Like I said, three run plays is all we got. They have to understand where they're going and why they're going there.

BRO: They're not being asked to hold blocks forever or …

JM: There's nothing hard about it for those guys, it's just execution. Understand the concepts and why they're doing it. That's it.

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