Chris Klenakis thrives at Louisville
A small group of Nevada coaches started something special more than a decade ago and it’s transformed the football landscape, both at the collegiate and professional levels.
Returning to the helm of the Wolf Pack, Chris Ault and his top two offensive assistants — Fallon’s Chris Klenakis and Jim Mastro — modified the pistol offense, a hybrid shotgun formation that puts the quarterback about 4 yards from the center. While the shotgun is used to spread receivers and its primary focus is on throwing the ball, the pistol focuses more on the running game. It begins with a mobile quarterback who can throw and execute the read option to perfection.
“That’s what makes it happen,” Klenakis, the co-offensive coordinator for Louisville, said minutes before walking into a recruit’s house Wednesday night. “Having a quarterback of Lamar’s (Jackson) abilities makes the offense run. It’s the key to it. Without having a quarterback of his abilities, we’re not able to get production we were able to get this year.”
With Louisville’s postseason not determined until after this weekend, Klenakis’ name has been thrown around as a successor to Brian Polian, who parted ways with Nevada after four seasons. Klenakis, though, was a finalist four years ago for that same position.
Klenakis, though, would not comment on the coaching vacancy. Instead his focus is on recruiting and overseeing the pistol offense thrive.
The pistol offense created headaches for opposing defenses while Klenakis was the offensive coordinator at Nevada in his second stint from 2004-2009. It created highly productive running backs and etched Nevada into the record books, including being the only FBS program to have three 1,000-yard rushers in one season. The Wolf Pack offense lit up the scoreboard. If the offense didn’t score more than 30 points, then something was wrong.
What “Air Wolf” did for the program in the 1990s when Klenakis was in Reno, the pistol was even more explosive and defenses still have problems defending the formation 11 years later. Since leaving the Wolf Pack to help coach offensive lines at Arkansas (2010-2012), Iowa State (2013) and now Louisville, Klenakis’ football knowledge, especially the hybrid formation, has benefitted every program he’s touched.
“It’s really nice to see what we created in 2005 is flourishing here in 2016 and hopefully it will produce its first Heisman Trophy winner,” Klenakis said.
After a year of maturity in Kentucky, the Cardinals led the country in points per game this season and have a Heisman candidate in Jackson, who won the ACC’s player of the year award this week. His speed, elusiveness and passing ability helped power the Louisville offense just like it did for the Wolf Pack when Klenakis called Reno home and watched Colin Kaepernick dazzle.
“This one’s right up there with the other ones we’ve had before,” Klenakis said. “I’ve been fortunate to be around great offenses.”
Klenakis, who was the offensive line coach last year, was promoted to co-offensive coordinator this season. Aside from a stumble at the end — Louisville was ranked as high as No. 5 in the college playoff ranking — the 13th-ranked Cardinals (9-3) will be in a top-tier bowl game and could nab the country’s first Heisman winner to run the pistol offense.
“We were using the pistol formation (last year). All you have to do is just watch us play,” Klenakis said. “It’s like anything you teach. As long as you teach correctly and the progression is there, players will learn. Coaching is teaching.”
After last year’s season, Klenakis knew this year’s offense was poised to break out. And it did in a big way.
“We could see that. We executed pretty good last year,” he said. “We executed it well and it carried into spring ball and into the season. We were very confident we would execute it well.”
Editor’s note: Jim Maston told a Spokesman newspaper he has no desire to return to Reno. According to Reno media reports, Nevada athletics director Doug Knuth doesn’t appear to select a coach from the Chris Ault era. Ault was the former Nevada coach before he stepped down after the 2012 season.