Blue 42! Big 129! Hike! Hike!
Most avid football fans recognize these phrases — or others like them — as part of a verbal ritual performed by their team’s quarterback before each play. Many of the most devoted fans of the pigskin game, however, lack a basic understanding of all this seemingly random gibberish at the line of scrimmage.
What does a quarterback yelling “Wildcat 57” have to do with the brutality that’s about to ensue as men run around and hit each other?
As it turns out, there is a method to the madness of these phrases. Audible as well as visual signals represent some of the most intricate details of an already complex sport. They are used by football teams everywhere — from bantam leagues to the NFL — to obtain strategic advantages during the course of a game.
The driving forces behind the signals are secrecy and tempo: preventing the opposing players from knowing what’s next and keeping them on their heels.
“You can do little subtle things that make a big difference,” junior quarterback Riley Nelson said. “If [the defense is] playing the run, you just give a little hand signal out to your receiver and just throw it out to them, and what would have been maybe a run stopped for a loss is maybe now a pass completion for maybe 10-12 yards. … We’ll get a play call in, and as the quarterback you have the freedom if you don’t like … the play you have called versus the look the defense gives you, you have the freedom to change the play and that’s through signals.”
But what Nelson might change at the line of scrimmage is only part of the equation. It begins in the coaches’ box, where first-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman calls the play down to the headset of backup quarterback James Lark, who relays the information from the sideline to Nelson on the field.
Lark was responsible for relaying plays for part of last year and has continued with that task throughout the entirety of the 2011 season.
“For me I’ve just got to make sure I’ve got the signals ready in my head,” Lark said. “In case we do a hurry up offense … I have to get the signal and signal the entire play into [Nelson].”
But for those who are used to playing the quarterback position, the mental preparation for having the right signals ready is “no big deal,” according to Lark.
“When we get new formations or new plays, me and Riley get to make up the signals,” he said. “They’re easy to remember because they’re ones we made up and they’re funny ones.”
Nelson said it helps to have a middle man on the sideline relaying the plays.
“James Lark is a pretty cool-headed dude, he doesn’t get rattled,” he said. “Which is nice because [when] you get out there on the field you get caught kind of up in emotions and to look over and see James, a level-headed, even-keeled guy, it kind of calms you down.”
According to Doman, there have been few communication breakdowns in his first season calling the shots for the Cougar offense.
“That hasn’t really been an issue,” he said. “Having played quarterback, it’s just innate to what I knew. … The learning curve is just finding the right medium or right mixture of no huddle and huddle intermixed with the signaling and the tempo of the offense.”
The reliability of the system the Cougars use helps relieve pressure on what often causes havoc for offenses — getting so caught up in fooling the opponent that the players themselves aren’t sure which play to run. Quarterbacks use a color or adjective, like “red” or “big” and often a corresponding play number to call out formation shifts, snap counts or even to fool the defense with a dummy audible that means nothing. When a player hears something other than what the quarterback has called out or doesn’t understand the signal, the results can be catastrophic.
While adjustments at the line of scrimmage have been smooth this year, the only glitch the Cougars have experienced so far under Doman has been getting the right players onto the field.
“The only issues we’ve had of relaying signals is just personnel change making sure the right guys come off and the right guys go on,” Doman said. “We’ve had a couple of penalties and a couple of timeouts we’ve had to call because personnel change didn’t occur.”
In the first few weeks of the season, Doman stayed on the sideline during games instead of the coaches’ box, but the offense has improved since he made the change. At one point in the season, the Cougars set season highs in points for five consecutive weeks.