CLEMSON — Chad Morris has always been willing to reinvent himself. Even before he became Clemson’s offensive coordinator, he was always looking for “a better mousetrap.”
When Morris was an embattled Texas high school coach, he purchased a plane ticket to watch an innovative Arkansas high school coach named Gus Malzahn. This offseason, Morris felt he had to reinvent himself again. He thought his offensive line, which replaced three starters, needed help.
Morris was skeptical of the Tigers’ horizontal blocking schemes. He wanted to simplify things for his inexperienced offensive line by using more of a straight-ahead attack.
Morris recalled a team that had overcome deficiencies on the offensive line to become one of the best running teams in America. Run-challenged Nevada implemented the pistol formation in 2005 and immediately became one of the best rushing teams in the country.
Clemson had tried to implement Nevada’s pistol as early as 2009 under former offensive coordinator Billy Napier, but the Clemson staff could never quite get the timing right. Clemson experimented with the pistol again last year but shelved the formation.
To seek answers, Morris bought another plane ticket and Clemson’s staff traveled to Reno, Nev., last spring.
The results?In its season-opening win against Auburn, Clemson was in the pistol on 80 percent of its offensive snaps. The Tigers rushed for 320 yards, the most under Morris, behind an inexperienced line and against a Southeastern Conference defense that returned nine starters.
“(The pistol) has helped the offensive line out,” Morris said. “In order for us to get to where this program, offensively, has to be week-in and week-out, we have to be able to run the football.”
Toward that goal, Clemson’s trip to Nevada might have yielded a schematic jackpot.
The experimentNevada coach Chris Ault knew he needed to make a change after the 2004 season.
Nevada had not been to a bowl game since 1998 and finished 3-5 in the Western Athletic Conference.
Like so many teams in the WAC, Nevada had become a pass-heavy spread team. Ault wanted a straight-ahead shotgun running offense. But nearly all shotgun runs were horizontal in nature.
Ault wondered if there was a way to blend the shotgun with a traditional one-back alignment.
That offseason Ault and his running backs coach Jim Mastro spend days working on the experiment in the Nevada locker room. They used tape to mark the positions of players in the formation on the carpeted floor and worked on the timing over and over again, ripping up and replacing the tape again and again.
They settled on the quarterback moving up from seven yards to four yards behind center and the running back moving from the quarterback’s hip to three yards directly behind the quarterback.
“We probably spent seven or eight days in the locker room putting tape on the ground,” Ault said. “It was pretty hysterical. The interesting thing about the pistol is there was no film. We were trying to create what we thought might work with a one-back set.”
His staff had doubts.“As I told the story of creating the formation I’m sure my staff all had their resumes ready,” Ault said.
The staff quickly became believers.
Nevada went from five wins and ranked 60th in rushing in 2004, to nine wins and the 22nd best running game in 2005. In 2009, Nevada led the nation in rushing (277.9 yards per game) and in 2010 went 13-1 and defeated No. 3 Boise State.
He called it the pistol because it was like a truncated shotgun, a straight-ahead shot.
The rest of the country took notice. Clemson is the 44th Division I team to implement the pistol formation.
Perfect timingThe first person with Clemson ties to gain a behind-the-scenes look at the pistol was center Dalton Freeman.
Freeman visited Nevada on a recruiting trip in 2007 and spent several days watching film with Ault.
“I was pushing for it a little bit (at Clemson),” Freeman said. “Whenever (the Clemson coaches) talked about it, I was definitely all for it. We spent the majority of spring trying to emphasize (the pistol). We saw the pros and cons.”
The cons were few. The pros were many.
The pistol allows linemen to produce more double-team blocks. Because the running back starts farther from the line of scrimmage, the center and guards have more time to pull and create combination blocks. As a result of being able to double-team more often, Clemson produced more knock-down blocks against Auburn than in any game last season.
The formation also allows the running back to gain more forward momentum rather than taking a hand-off flat-footed in a traditional shotgun-spread offense. On Saturday, Andre Ellington rushed for a career-best 228 yards.
“It allows the play to really open up,” Freeman said. “The timing is so much better.”
On a team with questions along its offensive front, the timing of the pistol couldn’t be better.