The spread, wildcat and pistol, oh my

TUSCALOOSA -- It was the first offensive play of the season. Junior Greg McElroy, making his first start as the University of Alabama's quarterback, trotted out on the field at the Georgia Dome and with a national television audience watching suddenly kicked out to line up on the other side of sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones in front of the Virginia Tech bench.
The Crimson Tide, perhaps the most physical team in all of college football the previous season in the wildcat? And running it in the most blatant of settings to make sure everyone saw it? That wasn't just something different, rather a first of firsts (along with silencing announcer Brent Musburger), and soon followed by another irregular formation, the pistol.
"They've done a real nice job executing it," said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino who will be on the visiting sideline Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. "They came out early in the wildcat and made some real nice plays. It causes you problems because of the misdirection and the way they block the front, that's what allows them do so well in it. They've utilized the pistol a lot and they've done a real nice job in their running game utilizing it with the (sweep) stretch play as we call it, outside and inside zone. They've been very effective with both of them."
Although many consider the formations gimmicky, unusual ways of lining up have become the rage of late, especially since the spread started revolutionizing the game. The result is more points being scored in general, even in the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference. That same weekend the Tide beat the No. 7 Hokies, 34-24, SEC teams combined for 30 touchdown drives lasting two minutes or less, compared to just seven drives going longer than five minutes.
"It's probably one of those things defenses will catch up with," Coach Nick Saban said about the wildcat, but he could have just as easily been discussing the spread or pistol. Here's a quick look at all three:
The spread
The true nature of the spread is a no-huddle approach (in part to limit defensive personnel changes) with the quarterback in shotgun formation and receivers lined up wide to "spread" the defense out.
Although the roots of the spread are in dispute, it's hardly a new innovation. TCU coach Leo "Dutch" Meyer, who had terrific success with quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien, wrote a book titled "Spread Formation Football" in the 1950s. Glenn "Tiger" Ellison, a coach at Middletown High School in Ohio, is credited with creating a similar system in 1958 and in published "Run-and-Shoot Football: The Offense of the Future" in 1965.
What is different now are the numerous variations that have developed, although spread doesn't necessarily translate into more passing. For example, Auburn is running a multiple spread this season while Florida has used the spread-option to win two of the last three national championships with quarterback Tim Tebow.
"The guy that doesn't get any credit is coach (Bill) Snyder when he was at Kansas State," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "I actually went down there and watched Snyder all day and couldn't believe what I was watching. (Eli) Roberson was his quarterback, and they just did phenomenal things as far as running the football and creativity. They were hard to stop."
Meyer said his conversion to the spread came after visiting Louisville while serving as a Notre Dame assistant.
"It was a completely different perspective on how to move the ball," he said. "Instead of scheme, I think it's personnel. The spread offense works better if you have guys who can operate in space very well."
Although many fans mistakenly consider Petrino's offense the spread, it's not. It's a pro-style with a lot of passing.
"We use some aspects of the spread offense," Petrino said. "We feel like we're more of a multiple formation, power-run team, play-action pass team. We do use some of the different personnel groups that are aspects of the spread offense. We've had some years where that part has been the thing we've done best and executed that more than other parts of our offense."
The wildcat
Put simply, the wildcat is when a non-quarterback takes a shotgun snap, with the quarterback lining up wide. It's most effective when the person with the ball can throw a decent pass.
"People see something that is new and difficult to defend, which it is, because you create another gap on defense," Saban said. "The quarterback is no longer the quarterback. If we play man-to-man, nobody has the quarterback. Now you put him out as a receiver and put a tailback in there, you have created another gap to defend on defense to run the same plays that you normally run. By using the motion gaps or speed sweeps, it at least keeps the people on the perimeter honest.
"Everybody is developing their ways to try and defend this, but I also think people are expanding what they do in this, more and more, that if you're not defending the middle of the field properly, they are going to have some things they can do to take advantage of that."
The wildcat is actually a variation of the Wing-T, a popular formation among high school teams that uses motion and misdirection to create mismatches, and first developed by Delaware coach Tubby Raymond. It came to the forefront during the 2006 season when Arkansas unveiled the "Wild Hog" as a way to utilize running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. It was subsequently copied by the Miami Dolphins and initially used on the unsuspecting New England Patriots. Even before the team charter landed back in Boston, Bill Belichick was on the phone with Saban, asking, "What is this?"
"You just want to use a formation that creates a little diversion and some problems to slow down fast defenses," said former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, now at Ole Miss. "You want to slow them down. There are some things that we worked on that we still have, and will continue to work on. You just want to pick-and-choose your spots."
Alabama ran out of the wildcat nine times against Virginia Tech, but just once since.
"I like it," McElroy said. "I think it's a great changeup, it's another thing the defense has to prepare for. We just really haven't done a great job of executing it. You go back and look at the Virginia Tech film, when we were really running a lot of wildcat, we were just one block away from really springing a couple of big runs.
"I think it's definitely a key factor for us, it's a useful tool."
Thus, the real key to Alabama running the wildcat is that opposing teams have to prepare for it and consider every variation. Not only could a running back take the snap, but the Tide has a number of former quarterbacks on the roster including tight end Brad Smelley and wide receiver Earl Alexander, not to mention backup quarterback Star Jackson. Meanwhile, the defense has been able to practice against it.
"It's really going to help us out to have an offense that can run it, because we're going to face a bunch of teams that do that," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said.
The pistol
Alabama has had a lot more success out of the pistol formation, which is basically moving the quarterback up a couple of yards for the shotgun snap and instead of the running back being to the right or left side lines up directly behind.
It too is hardly anything new, but makes it more difficult to tell where the play is going.
"Bernie Kosar in Cleveland never wanted to be in the shotgun, he never wanted to take his eyes off down field to catch the ball from center, but he never wanted the defense to know what the protection was going to be by where the back was," Saban said. "So when you're in the shotgun, a lot of times you're telling the defense which way we're going to slide the center, because you're going to slide him away from the center, or whatever, so you set up your blitzes either to the back or away from the back. Well, when you're in pistol even though you're in shotgun the quarterback doesn't have to get away, but the back's right behind him so he can go either way.
"Same thing in your running plays. Sometimes in the gun people only run across the formation, they don't run the same-side runs where the guy lines up, I call them. So there are some advantages and disadvantages that are created. So you have more direct runs, and you're not telling the defense as much being in pistol formation."
The bottom line, though, is that like the wildcat, the pistol is another thing the opposition must prepare for. Considering there's only so much time in a week, the more Alabama expands the playbook the tougher it'll be for defenses.
"The pistol formation is just a little bit different for us," McElroy said. "It's kind of a change-up, it's not something we're going to hang our hat on. But it does allow, with my shotgun background, for me to be a little more comfortable. Obviously, we use a lot of play-action out of it.
"The reason why we do that is that's it's a lot quicker to get set up, to get the ball out of your hand a little faster than when under center. You're only going a span of three or four yards the most, while under center you have to go seven, eight, nine. It speeds things up and we have a lot of speed at wide receiver and you want to get them the ball as quick as possible."
Like the spread and wildcat, it's simply a stop-us-if-you-can thing in a different way.