A UCLA’s offense faltered last season, dropping from 88th nationally in total offense to 100th out of 120 FBS teams, there were times that it seemed as if the players didn’t even know what they were supposed to be doing, much else why they were doing it.
Turns out, that extended to the coaching staff, as well, as the Pistol offense newbies struggled to exploit the inherent mismatches caused by the unorthodox formation. As much as the players battled inexperience and know-how, the coaches did as well, offensive gurus like Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow sounding downright dejected and dumbfounded after blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon among others.
As the offense bid goodbye to Chow and hello to new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and running game coordinator Jim Mastro, this season’s fall camp has been just as important for them as the players they’re coaching.
“I don’t know that it will look different but I think the production can be much different because we’ve got expertise now in how to formation teams, how to line people up and how to get the quarterback to get us to where the advantage is,” Neuheisel said of Mastro’s arrival from Pistol originator Nevada. “A lot of that, even though we were working hard at it, was a little bit of guess work. Trying things just because it looked like it would work or copying people rather than knowing exactly why we were doing it.”
Mastro’s mastery of the offense should pay dividends particularly in the game-planning and philosophical areas, as he has been able to share 11 years worth of wisdom gleaned from Pistol conceiver Chris Ault, whose Wolf Pack found great success after switching to the formation in the mid-2000s.
Mastro spent much of spring ball acclimating to his new position and trying to assess his talent and the roles they played within the offense. Now, he’s trying to convey some of the intricacies of the offense to the team, from coaches to players.
“They do (understand the offense) now, now that we were able to get through a spring, put some formation cut-ups together,” Mastro said. “Now they understand. And last year, they understood it, they ran well last year. But I’ve been explaining the principles to it, the reasons behind it, and they understand it.”
Like Chow a year ago, Johnson is new to the Pistol offense but feels prepared to call plays and handle the offensive direction. But even he believes he’s learning by the day.
“I’m better today than I was in the spring,” Johnson said. “I think I understand exactly what we’re doing from an offensive standpoint better than I did in the spring. It doesn’t take me that long to learn football.”