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Football: Kaepernick perfect fit for Ault’s unique pistol offense

Michael Bryan | Thursday, September 3, 2009

Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick is to the pistol what Tim Tebow is to Urban Meyer’s spread offense: the perfect dual-threat leader. The 2008 WAC Offensive Player of the Year will be featured Saturday in Wolfpack coach Chris Ault’s innovative formation, and will be the biggest threat to an Irish victory in the season opener.

Kaepernick, a junior, has thrived as a freshman and sophomore in the innovative offense that utilizes his speed and size. With immense talent throwing and running the ball, Kaepernick amassed 39 touchdowns last season, and more than 2,500 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.

“There’s only been five quarterbacks in Division I history that have thrown for 2,000 yards and rushed for a 1,000 yards in one season,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “That’s in the history of college football. And he’s one of them.”

The pistol offense is a variation of the shotgun Ault created in the late 70s in his third year with the Wolfpack. The basic formation has the quarterback in a shotgun position, three yards behind the center, with the running back lined up directly behind him.

“It’s a little bit different because it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before,” Irish senior safety Kyle McCarthy said. “But there’s obviously some option mixed in. So you have a little bit of Michigan and Navy in there. But they’re more than capable of passing the ball with success. So we’ve got to be ready for anything.”

Out of the formation Kaepernick can run play action passes, zone running plays with an option to tuck the ball and run, or straight handoffs to one of his talented backs, Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott.

Taua rushed for 1,521 yards in 2008 as a redshirt junior, averaging 137.2 total yards per game. The starting job only became Taua’s, however, after Lippincott suffered a knee injury in the Wolfpack’s second game of the year.

Another possible advantage of the pistol is the ability of the quarterback, especially one as big as Kaepernick, to obscure the defense’s view of the running back behind him, allowing for effective misdirection runs or play fakes.

In 2007, a healthy Lippincott led the WAC in rushing with 1,420 yards and 18 touchdowns. After being granted a sixth year of eligibility, he should pair with Taua to give Kaepernick multiple power running threats.

“The unique part in Nevada’s offense is the fact that they don’t lose their downhill plays, their straight downhill plays,” Weis said. “Although the quarterback is in the shotgun, the back’s still behind the quarterback. So it still gives you the element of being able to run all your normal I-formation type plays without having to have an offset back.”

With both Lippincott and Taua healthy, it seems likely that Ault will incorporate formations using one back behind Kaepernick and one offset to his side. The pistol variations Ault may use Saturday will necessitate a disciplined and focused effort from the Irish defense.

“We’re ready for any adjustment. And our guys have prepared, we’ve been practicing against the conventional offense all camp,” McCarthy said.

“So whatever Nevada comes out and lines up in, after – we’ll be ready for it. And if we’re not, after the first series or whatnot, we’ve got the coaching staff to get it adjusted on the sideline.”

While Kaepernick’s mastery of the pistol running attack (averaging seven yards per carry in 2008) has grown his reputation as a runner, he has also showed off his passing ability at times. In the Wolpack’s close loss to Maryland in the Humanitarian Bowl he threw for 370 yards while his running game was limited by a foot injury, and was named the bowl’s most valuable player in the Nevada loss.

While Notre Dame may not be able to stop both the running and passing attack of Kaepernick Saturday, containing him to only doing one may be the key to victory.