UCLA's Pistol offense gets a makeover

It’s time for the Pistol, part deux.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s a Pistol remake.

UCLA’s first go-round with the Pistol offense didn’t go all that well as the Bruins stumbled through a 4-8 2010 season and ended up ranked 100th in the nation in total offense, 104th in scoring and 116th in passing.

So coach Rick Neuheisel brought in a couple of offensive minds—offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and Pistol expert Jim Mastro—and the result has been a sort of Pistol hybrid offense that the Bruins will unveil in their season opener Saturday at Houston.

It's an offense designed to enhance the passing game without losing the gains made last season in the running game. The Pistol formation--a modified shotgun with a running back directly behind the quarterback--and its zone read and zone blocking concepts are still there, fine-tuned with the nuances only someone as experienced as Mastro can offer, but Johnson has put his own footprint on it with a multi-faceted passing game wrought with concepts he brought from his former job in the NFL.

“The offense is a lot different than it was last year,” Mastro said. “There aren’t a lot of similarities to it other than the Pistol formation itself. We’ve added a lot to it and taken what was working and brought to the next level. It’s going to be a lot of fun if we execute it properly.”

This year’s offense features much more pre-snap movement with shifts and motion men. The F-backs will move all over the place and so will receivers and running backs. After the snap, there will be changes, too, with misdirection plays and in between plays, personnel groupings will switch out on a regular basis.

“It’s an offense that I’m having fun with,” Johnson said.

Last year, the Bruins began the season trying to establish their running game. At first, they had success. UCLA averaged 262.4 yards rushing per game through the first five games and ranked in the top 10 in the nation in rushing offense.

But teams began to catch on and developed game plans to stop the run. The Bruins had no answer, averaging only 113.6 yards per game on the ground as they went 1-6 in their last seven games.

“We realized last year we were on to something with the running game, but we also realized that we threw the passing game completely out the window,” Neuheisel said. “So we’ve got to figure out how to have balance.”

Some of the run game will remain the same, but Mastro needed to tweak a few things here and there, especially in regards to the timing of the offensive linemen. He helping the players understand where they were supposed to be at each moment as a play develops and why.

“In the past, the linemen just kind of got to their spot any way they could,” Mastro said. “There are proper ways to get there and a timing to all of it and they’ve picked that up. They’re light years ahead of where they were.”

Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s leading rusher last season with 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns last season, averaged 125 yards in the first five games and only 71 in the last seven. He said that lack of consistency was a direct result of trying to learn the Pistol offense on the job.

A year of experience and Mastro’s tweaks have had a significant impact this year, he said.

“We have more of an understanding,” he said. “We know the philosophies behind it and the dos and don’ts of it and that helps us run it without thinking. Without a doubt it feels different. We’ve found a little spark and everything is starting to click a lot more.”

Facing the offense this year has been a completely different experience for the UCLA defense. The plays are crisper because different personnel groups come in to run different plays and everybody has fine-tuned their role.

The pass game is much more dynamic with the quarterbacks taking more shots downfield, the running backs coming out of the backfield as receivers and the F-backs creating matchup problems all over the field.

Linebacker Sean Westgate said many of the changes are subtle and some are drastic, but the bottom line is that the offense is far more difficult to defend.

“There is so much going on with all the new wrinkles,” Westgate said. “There are a lot of different looks. They have elements of pro style, Pistol, spread. They run it out of the Pistol formation, but there’s a lot of other aspects of other offense tied into one. It’s never any fun going up against them day in and day out.”