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March 24, 2013

Sun Devils tinker with Pistol offense in spring

Before Taylor Kelly picked up an Arizona State offer just weeks ahead of National Signing Day in 2010, he was planning to sign with Nevada where he would have competed to replace the Wolf Pack's then-quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Pistol offense popularized by coach Chris Ault.

Now it appears Kelly will get a chance to play in the unique formation as a Sun Devil. How much remains to be seen.

"That's for (running backs) Marion (Grice) and D.J.(Foster)," ASU head coach Todd Graham said Saturday. "Those guys are great I-formation backs. It's just kind of expanding what we're doing."

The Pistol -- an offensive formation in which the quarterback stands five yards behind the line of scrimmage in a shorter shotgun which allows a running back to line up several yards directly behind him -- is something Graham has tinkered with a little bit, though not in his first season at ASU.

Ault had immediate success with the Pistol at Nevada when he implemented it in 2005, and led by Kaepernick, the Wolf Pack in 2009 became the first NCAA Division I program to have three players rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

"We've incorporated it in our offense before," ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "At Tulsa (in 2007-2010) we'd get in and out of it. It's worth taking a look at. Being in our second year there's some ability for us to look at different things and that's what we're doing."

Now with the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick's mobility contributed to coach Joh Harbaugh -- a traditional I-formation, pro-style architect -- using the formation during the team's recently completed season, in which they reached the Super Bowl. Other NFL teams -- especially those with mobile quarterbacks who can effectively execute the zone read play, like Kelly -- are increasingly using the Pistol to varying degrees, including Washington and Seattle.

"Any time you're in the [shotgun], you see a lot of back movements and changing the back alignments," Norvell said "We do that quite a bit with motions and it gives a symmetry to the offense and really allows us to balance things up for the defense as far as what they're seeing, the snap looks and so it's something we're definitely expanding into the offense and we'll see at what level we do it."

A number of prominent coaches, including the Redskins' Mike Shanahan, believe the Pistol makes for effective play fakes, holding up defensive players longer or making them commit prematurely.

"Our guys are starting to like it," Kelly said. "It gets our running backs headed downhill. I've got to drop back a little bit more and clear the running back so he can get downhill. It's the same reads. The footwork is just a little different, but the quarterbacks and us practicing every day it's getting a lot better."

Several likely to miss spring

Redshirt freshman offensive guard Stephon McCray had surgery to repair torn meniscus in his left knee and will miss all of ASU's spring workouts.

Freshman devil backer Chans Cox, ASU's highest rated in-state addition, joined the program at the start of the spring semester as an early high school graduate but is sidelined indefinitely with a right foot injury. Cox was injured late last season and the injury hasn't yet healed. He practiced Tuesday but was in a walking boot Thursday and Saturday.

"Chans we'll kind of see how it goes week by week," Graham said. "They're going to do a little procedure on him. So probably the likelihood of either [McCray or Cox playing) won't be very good."

Nixon joins staff

Former ASU linebacker Mike Nixon, currently enrolled at the University's law school, has joined the program as a defensive graduate assistant. He is the third former Sun Devil to serve with the team in such a capacity under Graham, joining former skill athlete Rudy Burgess and wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad.

"We're trying to smarten up our staff," Graham joked. "We have two former academic All-Americans, one on offense and one on defense. I've got a great deal of respect for the men who have worn this helmet and come through here. I think it's really important on our staff to have guys that know and can be that bridge between the players and former players and us as coaches. So we're excited to have them. Great young men, great character."

Backs making bigger impression

ASU's running back group, already one of the most talented on the roster, is looking even more impressive this spring as stars Grice and Foster have completed their first winter in the program's strength and conditioning program looking noticeably bigger. Foster is up as much as 20 pounds while Grice has added 10-15 pounds.

"Those guys physically are going to be prepared to handle a Division I season," Norvell said. "Last year Marion got here in July, had no offseason, didn't really get to work with our guys. D.J. just got the summer. A high school freshman coming in, that's not really enough time to get a lot done. So when you get a full year with coach [Shawn Griswold] it really helps them out. They look like they're running even better than last year and that's exciting to see when guys are gaining weight and still playing fast. Those guys put in the work and coach [Griswold] is the best in the business."


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