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How the Pistol Formation Would Look at Virginia Tech

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Virginia Tech’s first spring scrimmage was, to say the least, a rough showing by the offense. The starting unit failed to produce a single touchdown. There was, however, an interesting wrinkle to that we have never seen before from the Hokies: the Pistol formation.

Before we get into how the Pistol could be incorporated into the Hokies’ scheme, here’s a quick history lesson on the relatively young but trending philosophy.

(Click to read more after the jump)

The formation was initially introduced to college football by Nevada coach Chris Ault in 2004 and has since been adapted by more than a dozen major programs, though the Wolfpack are the only FBS team to use the formation exclusively. The most notable program to adopt it is Oregon, which has reached three straight BCS bowls, including the 2011 BCS Championship Game.

The quarterback lines up four yards behind the center, as opposed to the six or seven-yard depth of the standard shotgun.

Directly behind the quarterback is the running back at a depth of seven yards. If there is a tight end, he can line up either on the line of scrimmage or flexed a line off of scrimmage, depending on the play call (more on that later).


The above formation uses one running back, a tight end on the line of scrimmage and either a fullback or second tight end flexed on the weak side…this is either "12" or "21" personnel, depending on whether the flex is a fullback or tight end.

On Saturday, the Hokies mainly utilized either "10" or "11" personnel. This means it is either a one-back/zero-tight end or one-back/one-tight end set. Tech has the personnel to modify those sets to include a fullback or an extra tight end, depending on the situation.

The original goal of the pistol offense was to combine the greatest strengths of an under-center formation and the shotgun into one balanced package. It allows a quicker quarterback/running back exchange on handoffs than when the ball is snapped from under center. It also gives the quarterback a quicker start into his drop on passing plays, similar to the standard shotgun.

In the shotgun, running backs have little to no time to accelerate before taking the handoff, as they are aligned beside the quarterback pre-snap, rather than behind him where he can establish momentum downhill before he gets the ball. In the pistol, that momentum is brought back into play.

The other element of the running game that gives defenses fits is the symmetry of the backfield. Linebackers, which typically key on the running back at the snap, are unable to make any pre-snap reads based on the back’s alignment. It is also difficult to pick up the running back immediately at the snap because the quarterback blocks the defense’s view of the runner (again, more on how this is a huge advantage for the Hokies later).


It’s not hard to see how this formation utilizes many of the concepts that have made the spread offense popular while maintaining some principles of a power, I-formation attack. One of the important principles at a mid-level program like Nevada was the ability to spread the defense in an effort to aid an undersized offensive line. Teams that have trouble blocking B.O.B (Big-on-Big) can thrive in a spread rushing attack because of the zone blocking techniques and less crowded defensive box that the Pistol creates.

You may remember one team that used the Pistol almost exclusively to beat the Hokies. James Madison befuddled the Tech defense with a Pistol attack that the Dukes had literally never used before that game in 2010. Obviously, it was more effective because the Hokies were completely unprepared for it, but it was nevertheless a successful plan that led to three touchdowns in a 21-16 upset. While the Dukes didn’t exactly dominate the game (just 114 yards on 41 carries), the frequent misdirection plays led to crucial third-down conversions and two second-half scores.

Now, as to how this wrinkle will function within the Tech offense, which I’ve heard is working out of this formation more and more as spring practice unfolds.

We’ll start in the backfield. One of the more subtle strengths of this offense was mentioned earlier. It’s very hard for linebackers to read the running back until at least a step, if not two, after the snap. This will be especially true for the Hokies, with 6’6’’ quarterback Logan Thomas concealing the running back. True freshman J.C. Coleman, who will almost certainly be a primary ball carrier this fall, is only 5’7". For that reason, the Pistol seems tailor-made for Coleman.

Thomas became increasingly comfortable last season running the zone read option from the shotgun, a play that can be run equally if not more effectively from the pistol. Because the running back can go either direction at the snap, it actually makes the zone read even more difficult to defend. Everyone has heard the Cam Newton comparison for Logan Thomas, and it’s on this play in particular where that can really be noticed.

Arguably the most successful play the Pistol has to offer is called "horn", which is a misdirection that uses a pulling center and play-side tackle to seal the edge for the running back. The quarterback uses reverse opening to freeze the weak-side (and hopefully middle/mike) linebacker. Watch it in action here:

Nevada's Horn Play (via somefootballcoach)

Obviously, it is important to have great athletes along the offensive line who can move in space for this play (and others) to work. Andrew Miller fits the bill perfectly at center. A former all-state wrestler, Miller has terrific footwork for an interior lineman. At tackle, Nick Becton is also a very good athlete (disclaimer: if he’s in shape) on the left side, while injury issues could limit Michael Via’s mobility.

As with any zone-blocking scheme, all five offensive linemen must be able to block in space, whether its reaching down the line or getting to the second level as quickly as possible. Brent Benedict was moved from tackle to guard this spring specifically because of mobility concerns, which would call into question his prowess in a zone blocking system. David Wang has the lead for the other guard spot. When healthy, Wang is a very good fit as a pulling guard.

The Hokies notoriously feature an undersized offensive line, which has been their downfall against elite foes at times. It seems like the coaching staff thinks this new addition to the system can be used to the Hokies’ advantage. Granted, this is the biggest offensive line Tech has had in recent memory, with four projected starters weighing in at over 300 pounds.

Another important factor is that the top tight end candidates, Randall Dunn and Eric Martin, are better pass catchers than they are run blockers. This is another reason for Tech to spread the field even with the intent to run the ball.

I’ve heard the Hokies are using motion and shifting pre-snap on virtually every play, both in the pistol and other formations. This is a growing trend in college football, and nothing new at Tech. One of the looks you can expect to see will include fullback Joey Phillips to Thomas’ side. This is a look made popular by Urban Meyer at Florida with Tim Tebow.

This isn’t exactly a high-definition video of the Gators using this formation, but it gives you an idea of how it works.

Florida running Pistol Offense against Alabama (via NVtraveler)

This is a great short-yardage formation that the Hokies could use with great success, given Thomas’ ability to pick up yards in those situations and Phillips’ great run-blocking ability.

The beauty of the pistol from a running backs’ perspective is that it often reduces the pressure on them to make decisions on which hole to attack. The purpose of the inside/outside zone blocking is that it is aimed to open up a specific gap for the running back to hit. With a completely unproven stable of backs that will likely feature three freshmen, this is a key aspect of the formation.

The rushing attack in the pistol is pretty straightforward. There’s an inside zone, an outside zone and a misdirection (with the read option as an adaptation of these base plays), but Nevada has had incredible success using it.

Here’s a look at Nevada’s rushing numbers since 2007:


Yards per game

National Rank (Rush YPG)
















As you can see, the Wolfpack have featured one of the most dominant rushing attacks in the country over the last five years using this scheme. Obviously the Hokies are not going to completely overhaul the offense and use the pistol as its main formation. However, utilizing features of the offense like Florida and Oregon have in recent years could spark an offense that must replace eight starters from last year’s team.

What do you think? I’m interested to see how fans would react to seeing more of this look in the upcoming season.