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Chris Ault seeking next leader of Nevada’s Pistol offense

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – How do you replace arguably the greatest quarterback in Nevada Wolf Pack history?

“You don’t,” Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault said recently. “But that doesn’t mean our offense won’t continue to be extremely productive. The strength of the Pistol offense is that it is versatile and can adapt to your quarterback’s strengths.”

With Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback since the sixth game of the 2007 season, the Wolf Pack’s celebrated Pistol offense has been one of the most multifaceted attacks in the nation. The senior Kaepernick, who will lead the Pack in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Jan. 9 in San Francisco against Boston College, became the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a career.

“Kap has definitely made it hard for someone to come in and fill his shoes,” said freshman quarterback Cody Fajardo, one of three quarterbacks (along with Tyler Lantrip and Mason Magleby) who will battle it out for the right to replace Kaepernick, the best player Ault says he has ever coached.

“I’d have to really play beside myself to get the accolades and accomplishments he’s had in his career,” Magleby, a red-shirt freshman, said. “He’s had an amazing career.”

Ault, though, admits he’s not looking for amazing next year from his quarterback.

“The quarterback in this offense just needs to run the offense and not make mistakes,” Ault said. “He doesn’t have to be the focus on the offense.”

Ault will only say two things about the quarterback competition that will begin as soon as the clock at AT&T Park stops ticking on the night of Jan. 9.

The first thing he’ll say is that next year’s quarterback is currently on the roster, meaning that it will be either Lantrip, Fajardo and Magleby (another freshman, Harrison Stewart, left the program this month) running the offense next fall.

“Yes, next year’s quarterback is on the roster now,” Ault said. “It will be Tyler or one of the young guys.”

The second thing Ault will say about the Pack’s 2011 quarterback is that Lantrip, a senior next year, currently is ahead in all the polls.

“Tyler is the heir apparent,” Ault said. “He’s paid his dues. I am loyal to the guys who pay their dues in our system. Right now Tyler has the edge. He has the most experience, he’s been in our system four years.”

Lantrip, who red-shirted in 2007, has completed 12-of-23 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 90 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns in his Pack career after leaving Jesuit High in Carmichael, Calif.

The two freshman – Fajardo is using his red-shirt season this year and Magleby red-shirted last year – also accept the fact that Lantrip has the edge right now.

“Tyler is older, he knows the offense well,” said Magleby, who played for Del Oro High School in Loomis, Calif. “I’d like to say it is going to be open competition but Tyler definitely has a leg up on the rest of us.”

“I’d say Tyler has the edge now but we’re all going to show up to compete,” said Fajardo, from Servite High in Anaheim, Calif. “I’m approaching it as if the spot is wide open. There’s going to be a lot of competition.”

If the senior Lantrip wins the job, he’d only be a one-year quarterback, meaning the Pack will be looking for a new quarterback again in the spring of 2012 as they prepare to head into the Mountain West Conference.

“That’s something to look at,” said Ault, who has had just one quarterback (Jeff Ardito in 1980) start for him for just one year in his 26 seasons as head coach.

Ault, though, is also not in the business of having his best quarterback sit on the bench while a wet-behind-the-ears youngster gets on-the-job training. So, if Lantrip doesn’t stumble this spring and one of the youngsters doesn’t overwhelm Ault, the job will likely go to the senior next fall.

“I’m not going to be afraid to tell him this spring if he’s not playing well, ‘Now, Ty, you better get with it,'” Ault said. “My obligation as the head coach is that if Tyler’s not good enough, he won’t play.”

Ault, though, said he would be perfectly happy if the 6-foot-4 Lantrip grabs the job and never lets go.

“Tyler did a very nice job this year,” Ault said. “He showed he could run this offense. I knew that if something would have happened to Kap, that Tyler could come in and we would continue to win games.”

Lantrip’s breakout moment this year took place in a 56-42 victory over Utah State. With Kaepernick benched for 11 plays, Lantrip led the Pack to a pair of touchdowns.

“It was definitely good to get some experience in a situation like that,” said Lantrip of his first tour of duty in the first half of a game and when the Pack was leading by less than 23 points.

Lantrip, who will be 23 years old next season, knows nothing will be handed to him this spring or next fall.

“All I can do is continue to work hard in practice and get better,” he said.

Unlike Lantrip, both Magleby and Fajardo were recruited as Pistol quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks, who each stand four inches shorter than Kaepernick at 6-foot-2, ran Pistol-like spread offense in high school with the ability to run or pass.

“You have to have the ability to run in this offense,” Ault said.

Of the three quarterback candidates, though, Magleby is probably the one who most resembles Kaepernick’s ability to break open a game with his legs. He went for 31 yards in the only rushing attempt of his career on Nov. 6 at Idaho.

And, like Kaepernick, Magleby is an outstanding baseball pitcher. He was drafted in the 2009 major league amateur draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Kaepernick was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the same draft.

“Mason is a terrific runner, a great athlete,” Ault said, repeating the exact words he once used to describe a young Kaepernick.

Magleby, who was also a kicker in high school, can also throw the ball with authority. He passed for 270 yards and three touchdowns his senior year at Del Oro against Lake City, Idaho and 335 yards and three scores against Oakmont (Calif.).

“I’ve been trying to pick Kap’s brain the last two years to try and learn as much as I can from him,” Magleby said.

Magleby is confident he could pull the trigger on the Pack pistol.

“This offense fits my style very well,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every second of my time here and have learned so much.”

Fajardo chose the Wolf Pack over such schools as Nebraska, San Jose State and Arizona. The Pack had to scramble to find a quarterback late last January for its 2010 recruiting class when Taylor Kelly (Eagle, Idaho), who had already verbally committed to Nevada, decided to go to Arizona State instead.

Fajardo, one of the top quarterbacks in Southern California committed to Nevada and then stayed true to his word even though Nebraska later gave him an offer.

“I came here because I wanted to run the Pistol offense,” Fajardo said.

Ault didn’t attempt to hide his praise of Fajardo last February on signing day, calling him “the leader of this recruit class.”

Fajardo threw for 21 touchdowns and two interceptions his senior year in high school and also rushed for 1,085 yards and eight touchdowns.

“Cody is a special player, a special athlete,” said Ault last February. “He’s what you have to have in this offense.”

Fajardo said the presence of Kaepernick on this year’s team is another big the reason why he came to Nevada.

“I wanted to learn from him,” Fajardo said. “He’s taken the Pistol to the next level. I’ve just tried to pick up as much from him as I can in learning this offense.”

Fajardo, like Magleby and Lantrip, isn’t afraid of trying to replace Kaepernick.

“It’s hard to replace a guy like that but it’s also the great thing about it because it gives you motivation to try to come in and do what he did,” Fajardo said. “It’s exciting.”

Ault said he isn’t trying to find the next Kaepernick. He’s just trying to find the next Pistol quarterback.

“There’s no question it’s going to be difficult to replace a player like Kap, especially in terms of his running ability,” Ault said. “He’s a special player. But we’ll still move the ball. Maybe next year we’ll throw it more.”

Kaepernick will leave Nevada as not only the best running quarterback in school history but one of the best in NCAA history. Ault, though, it must be noted, always remained true to the Pistol’s run-pass foundation and never really just turned Kaepernick loose on the ground.

Kaepernick has only averaged 11.8 running attempts for 81.8 yards and 1.2 touchdowns a game in his career. It’s just that he has done some incredible things with those 11.8 rushing attempts: He scores a touchdown once every 10 attempts (59 TDs in 591 attempts) and he picks up, on average, 6.9 yards every time he runs.

“We don’t just let him run around,” Ault said. “One reason is that we didn’t want to get him hurt but the real reason is that this offense is versatile. That’s why our offense isn’t going to change next year even without Kap.

“Like this year, we’d probably only run 15 ‘read’ plays with Kap most games. If Ty was running the offense, maybe we’d only do nine or so. That’s the only real difference.”

Ault is confident his offense will continue to thrive next year. So while the number of 50-yard touchdown runs by the quarterback will likely decrease the end result – points on the scoreboard — shouldn’t change.

“The Pistol, whoever we put back there, is going to work,” Ault said.