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Dean's Blog: The Dirty Little Secret Behind OU's Closed Practices

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The dirty little secret behind OU's controversial closing of practices is this: When folks were locked out in the spring and fall, all the Sooners did was change their offense. And defense. And OU brought in the creator of the "Pistol" formation, Chris Ault, last spring for around 10 days to teach the coaches a completely different style of offense.

In other words, not exactly an "open-the-gates-and-bring-your-cameras and tape recorders" type setting. Bob Stoops is all for tipping his hand. Wrong, which was right.

Wise move. Learn to be obnoxious with Johnny Football, learn to write from Rick Reilly and learn a new offense from the man who invented the "Pistol" offense — the one in which lightly-recruited high school QB Collin Kaepernick thrived at Nevada under his tutelage.

Knight burst into the coaches' consciousness when he mimicked Johnny Football so well the defensive veterans and buddies of the popular and presumed quarterback-in-waiting Blake Bell were in awe. Apparently, he gained 700 yards against the Sooners in practice because that's what he did in the Cotton Bowl. Knight looked like the guy then, although no one outside the Barry Switzer Center knew it. But he was hit-and-miss so the job wasn't his until cutting down on mistakes but no the big plays in the fall. Enter the Trevor Knight Era. Exit stage left the "Never Let The Quarterback Run" mantra.

OU has made the switch from a drop-back attack to an option-oriented offense featuring a mobile quarterback. Stoops and Co. saw the wave of the future—both in college and with NFL teams with duel-threat QB including like the 49ers and Redskins. QBs who can beat you with their arms and their legs. Utilizing athletes like Trevor Knight, who can turn what in the past was a sack or worse on a statuesque pocket passer, who could make all the throws and set all the records but couldn't outrun a rock, into positive yardage.

No offense to OU's immobile QBs. The record speaks for itself. But last I checked, Josh Heupel's calling plays, Sam Bradford plays on Sundays and Landry Jones made the Steelers. This next wave can fling it well enough and run it better than that—although I don't question the long-term passing of Trevor Knight.

Today's defenses that focus on pressure at all times with fast, athletic and versatile players, have led teams like OU to make the switch. That and who they've recruited. The Sooners have opted out of their comfort zone and into the end zone with a mobile QB

The truest definition of the "Pistol" has two backs alongside the QB and one behind. The first base play of Ault's offense is an inside zone that sets up the read and the play-action pass off it. Ault says people are wrong in thinking the "Pistol" is only a read. He says it's a formation. "And from that formation, if you're a power offense, you can run the power. If you're a counter offense, you can run the counter. It's not just a read offense. I think the read offers another dimension to it, but it's really a versatile formation." And that's one more reason it's in Norman now.

Ault compared how NFL teams are using his offense, which he says he's happy to share with people and two years ago had 44 different teams travel to Nevada to watch and learn his genius in spring football. "The one thing I had not seen the Niners do, that I saw the Redskins do, was throw the ball with play-action out of the pistol. I thought the play-action passing really helped with the read itself out of the pistol. It was fun to see, I'll tell you. I recognized most of it, and I'm sure they changed it to match their personnel, but it was fun to see the skeleton, anyway."

The Sooners do a lot more than read option plays out of the "Pistol." Josh Heupel will leave Norman before he'll abandon bringing in guys who can really spin it. But counting Knight, Blake Bell, Kendal Thompson, Cody Thomas and high school commit Justice Hansen, the Sooners have five could-be quarterbacks who can thrive in this offense. Add that the fact that OU is loaded with quality depth at running back. Although Stoops denied it when I questioned today, I believe a new OL coach and new emphasis on the run game, have made this team tougher. Third-and-two no longer a passing down. At least not by necessity.

New OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh has had a hand in the change and toughening up his big uglies, stressing that his lineman get bigger and meaner off the ball. But in the end—if it pans out--credit the man smart enough and good enough to have won or shared eight Big 12 titles in his 14 years. Add up the titles from league faves OSU and 16 years of Mack at Texas, and they stand at precisely four conference titles: half of what Stoops has done. Since Stoops has been in the league, he's won more titles than all other teams combined. So second-guess his pocket-pass history if you want. I'll sit that one out. This isn't Austin where there's an annual shift in offensive philosophy.

Interestingly, if OSU wins the title this year, check out the Pokes new offense. Ironically, as Stoops brought mentioned to me yesterday after we finished the taping of his TV show, his Sooners and Mike Gundy's Cowboys—yesterday's Air-Raid masters-- are suddenly featuring making a similar switch. At the same time.

Make no mistake, this is a radical departure from recent OU offenses. Proof that only death and taxes never change. Never thought I'd see option football again on Owen Field in my lifetime. But EVERYthing changes; evolves. And best be ahead of the curve or you'll likely be playing catch-up.

Net result: Less plays. More players. Less injuries and fatigue. And less scoring. But more ball-control offense means the opponent will score less too. All evens out. Not rocket-science. It's just a game.

Unless the "Pistol" backfires and the Sooners revert back to flag football in shoulder pads. But don't bet on it. After one game I won't be surprised if Knight becomes a star and joins JC Watts as the best duel-threat QBs in Sooner history. He made only one wrong option read all night Saturday and showed rare acceleration, ability to get to the second level, and played without fear. And he'll only get better, especially in the passing game. The quick release, accuracy, velocity, even the spiral are unquestioned. The poise, anticipation, and help from the O-line and receivers can improve.

The Sooners probably have neither the number of difference-makers nor the depth to have a banner year. But, I'll be surprised if Stoops doesn't find success with his remarkably quiet and swift 180 degree shift in offensive philosophy. Not as overnight, likely or deadly as Barry Switzer and Chuck Fairbanks when they switch to the wishbone the week before the Texas game in 1970. But stout enough to win games. Perhaps, a lot of them.

And for that, they can thank the old man from Nevada. Perhaps Pistol's firing in Norman.

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