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Iowa State Guns For Success With Ault Protégé

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James White, last year's leading rusher, didn't accumulate as many yards in 2012 as the Cyclones did during their spring game this year under new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who helped author the Pistol offense at Nevada. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images.
James White, last year's leading rusher, didn't accumulate as many yards in 2012 as the Cyclones did during their spring game this year under new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who helped author the Pistol offense at Nevada. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images.

Until now, the story of Iowa State’s offseason had been about departures. An assistant coach left for a job in a non-BCS league to work alongside his brother. A quarterback who beat Oklahoma State in 2011 transferred. Stories were written that wondered how the Cyclones would replace the heart and soul of their team, graduating linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein.

Then the spring game happened and Iowa State ran for 556 yards. That is not a typo.

Granted, the Cyclones return four starters on the offensive line. They figure to be set at running back, even with Shontrelle Johnson missing for the spring rehabilitating a torn ACL. They still have James White, last year’s leading rusher, though with just 505 yards.  

So did this happen? How did a team manage more rushing yards in one quasi-game than the best rusher managed all last season? Well, never mind there were 104 running plays in the spring game. Instead, understand this story changed from one about multiple exits to one about a single arrival – and not junior college speedster Aaron Wimberly.

Good luck finding a more significant offseason addition in the Big 12 than the one the Cyclones made to their coaching staff. Coach Paul Rhoads hired Chris Klenakis as the offensive line coach and unholstered something potentially dangerous. Klenakis is an expert on the Pistol offense and the former offensive coordinator at Nevada literally wrote the book on it. Klenakis worked for the Wolfpack from 1990-1999 and then 2004-09 with then-coach Chris Ault, who introduced the half-shotgun Pistol to the masses beginning in the 2005 season.

Iowa State messed around with the Pistol last season, but not like this.

“His innovation with the offense has been very good to us,” Rhoads said on a Big 12 conference call this week.

The timing was right for everyone involved, beginning with Klenakis, who needed a job. He’d been the line coach at Arkansas for three successful seasons, but that deal crashed as Bobby Petrino’s disgraced exit and John L. Smith’s inept relief appearance delivered Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and his different approach to running the ball.

Iowa State needed a line coach, but also a quarterback, which isn’t new. The Pistol can help a quarterback. There is no need to backpedal much and concentrate on footwork and defenders. The snap is short enough that the quarterback doesn’t have to take his eyes off the opposition to find the ball. It allows for quick reads and throws before the defense can read and react, but also gives the quarterback a better look down the field. It just makes life easier on sophomore Sam Richardson, who, by the way, can run.

Iowa State will keep the read option and zone blocking. But the depth of the quarterback, and the position of the running back behind the quarterback and not to his side, scrambles defensive fronts. Many defenses bet on shotgun running plays going to the side opposite of the running back. The Pistol gives no such hint and puts the running back on top of the defense a tick quicker.

On many run plays, Richardson will have the option to give it to a running back or to keep it himself. Draws and counters are in play, too, sometimes with a fullback. From there it’s quick access to lanes and downhill running, which suits the Cyclones. The better they run it, the more potent play-action passes become, which is an exciting possibility for sophomore Quenton Bungrade and redshirt freshman Dondre Daley on the outside.

It's hard to understate the value of Klenakis. Not only was Iowa State No. 9 in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game and per carry last season, but this gives the offense a different look in a conference where so many offenses look and act alike.

“His extensive knowledge and background as a coordinator in the Pistol offense will help us diversify and expand our offensive system,” Rhoads said of Klenakis in a press release announcing the hiring. “The Pistol is emerging, in both college and the NFL, as a highly potent offense that is changing how teams have to prepare defensively."

In the spring game, Iowa State’s defense seemed unprepared despite 14 prior practices. DeVondrick Nealy, the scout team player of the year in 2011 who had 16 carries last season, finished with 142 yards and two scores on 18 carries. Wimberly ran 15 times for 89 yards and a score and Rob Standard, the all-time leading rusher in the St. Louis area, added 65 yards on 10 carries. They’re suddenly additions to Johnson and White, who finished with one more yard than Johnson, as well as short-yardage back Jeff Woody.

“I would view it as a team strength,” Rhoads said. “We know we have numbers there and we’re certainly looking for more quality play overall as an offense, not just the running back position. We need to block, too. We had too many six-yard gains that were six-yard gains last year. This spring, we had more six-yard gains that became 40-yard gains.”