Gyrations, signs and signals: The science of communicating plays in no-huddle offenses

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 6, 2013 

The one-man dance party begins at the whistle, at the end of each North Carolina play. A running back is tackled, a receiver steps out of bounds, a quarterback throws an incomplete pass, and Walt Bell, the Tar Heels’ tight ends coach, begins to move.

“Gyrations,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said of Bell’s motions. “We call it football aerobics.”

The movements mean different things and convey unique pieces of information. In the beginning, Bell begins to move his arms, his fists in balls, like he’s running in place. How fast his arms move dictates the Tar Heels’ tempo between plays.

Then Bell continues the routine, his arms and hands flashing code. When shown on TV, he might look like an animated third base coach. By the end of it, UNC’s offensive skill players – quarterback Bryn Renner and the running backs and receivers – know the tempo, the formation, the play.

In coach Larry Fedora’s up-tempo spread offense, Bell’s dance is UNC’s silent language. There is no huddle between plays, just Bell moving and shaking and relaying information. That is UNC’s way of delivering a play call, which winds from the press box, through Bell’s headset and arm motions and onto to the field.

It is hardly the only way. No-huddle offenses are the norm in college football. They were something of a rarity when Fedora began using one as the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State in the late 1990s, but now they’re everywhere.

“You turn on the TV Saturday, what do you see in every game?” Fedora said earlier this week. “Just up-tempo, up-tempo, up-tempo. And when somebody huddled it was like, ‘Wow. What’s going on? Why is this taking so long?’”

As recently as two seasons ago, Duke was the only Triangle team that used a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. Then UNC hired Fedora in 2011 and about a year later N.C. State hired Dave Doeren from Northern Illinois, which reached the Orange Bowl thanks in large part to Doeren’s no-huddle spread.

The offenses at Duke, UNC and N.C. State are similar on the surface, but different upon closer inspection. Yet each comes with the same basic challenge, which is to relay the play call as quickly and efficiently as possible.

UNC’s system, with Bell motioning, is one way. N.C. State uses a combination of signalers – several “dummy” signalers using motions that don’t mean anything – and signs with pictures and numbers.

At Duke, which has been a no-huddle team since coach David Cutcliffe and his staff arrived in 2008, the Blue Devils use several signalers at the same time, though only one sends in the real play call. Coaches often talk among themselves about the best way to call plays, Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said.

“You always try to disguise everything as much as you possibly can, (and) to have multiple guys doing the signals on the sideline,” Roper said. “We’re a signal team, and we try to minimize the number of signals it takes to get a play in to speed it up.”

Decoys and decoding

The Wolfpack’s signs are large – big squares with a picture and a series of numbers. A graduate assistant will hold it up, players will look over and that’s how the offense knows what to do.

Against Louisiana Tech last week, one sign showed a picture of a wolf, sitting in mid-howl. To the right were a series of numbers: an “04” on top of a “69.”

Garrett Leatham, an N.C. State quarterback who is one of the players responsible for signaling in plays, said after Doeren arrived the players met and came up with some of the pictures.

“The process wasn’t too difficult because we all came up with the signals,” Leatham said. “So we kind of knew the meaning behind it. It kind of has to do with the play. It was just a matter of just memorizing every single thing. It’s kind of like studying for a vocabulary test.”

Duke’s system has been in place for years. Roper, who has been Duke’s offensive coordinator since 2008, immediately begins teaching signals to freshmen when they arrive.

He believes the best way to learn is immersion, and so he teaches the sign language of Duke’s playbook the way a teacher might introduce a foreign language: through constant repetition, and with some hints along the way.

“From the time our freshmen walk on our campus to our first practice, first team period, we start signaling,” Roper said. “And a lot of times it takes a little time. We might be signaling it, but we’re hollering it. So they see the signal, they hear the words and they start understanding.

“We challenge them right from the beginning. It’s the only way. … If you baby step them into it, it’ll take longer.”

UNC doesn’t use dummy signalers or poster-sized signs. Some of Bell’s movements don’t mean anything, he said, but most are part of the Tar Heels’ own unique sign language, which every skill player – from Renner, the quarterback, to Khris Francis, a freshman who’s the No. 3 running back – must understand.

It took a while to teach, Bell said, when he and the rest of Fedora’s staff arrived in early 2012.

“You can sit in a meeting room for hours on end and then master the signals, but it’s getting them to master the signals while I’m going (like this),” Bell said mimicking one of his motions. “Getting them to master the signals at the same tempo that we’re trying to get them to go at. That’s the hardest thing for the younger guys and the new guys, is to see the signals and tempo while moving (and) making them communicate with each other.”

Information flows quickly from top

College teams have 40 seconds between plays. Few take that long. At Duke, UNC and N.C. State, play calls always originate in the press box, where the offensive coordinator sits. The speed at which they work can vary. Matt Canada, the offensive coordinator at N.C. State, said he isn’t necessarily concerned with relaying plays to the field as quickly as possible.

“We don’t have a time on that,” he said. “We want to play fast but not in a hurry. If going fast gives us an advantage, we’ll play fast. But we’re not trying to count plays. We’re going to try to run effective plays. So we’re not necessarily racing the clock that way.”

At Duke, Roper said he tries to have the play call “as fast as possible,” and that he wants the Blue Devils to be ready to begin their offensive plays with at least 18 seconds remaining on the play clock. If Duke is moving especially fast, Roper said the play can be in, and the offense set, with 30 seconds remaining.

UNC, meanwhile, usually uses one pace and one pace only: as fast as possible. And so Anderson, the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator, must call plays quickly. Bell said he can receive the play call from Anderson and relay it in eight to 10 seconds. The goal is always 12 to 14 seconds at most, Bell said.

At the start of games, UNC uses a script of predetermined plays. After that, educated improvisation dictates what Anderson might call, and when. Regardless of the call, Anderson doesn’t waste time before deciding.

“I start calling the play before the dust settles from the play before,” he said. “… Obviously, we have several different tempos and ways to do it, but normally, in a normal situation, when the ball breaks the line of scrimmage and I’ve got a good idea where it’s going to finish, I’m already calling the next personnel and play.

“So we’re going to try to keep as much pressure on the defense as possible.”

Bell, who at 29 is the youngest of UNC’s assistant coaches, wears a different-colored shirt from the rest of the staff so he’s easier to find. He has signaled plays on Fedora’s staff since he joined it at Southern Miss in 2010.

In the past, Fedora’s offense used color-coded signs and ones with shapes. Once, the offense used multiple signalers on the sideline, or different signalers on each series. The system has evolved.

Now it’s Bell’s dance, which Anderson described as “less complicated.” There used to be fear, Bell said, of opposing defenses stealing signs and defenses knowing what was coming.

“Now,” Bell said, “it’s if you can steal our signal and communicate it to the (defense), we’re not playing fast enough.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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