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How to Name Your Plays in an Up Tempo Offense

Probably the greatest source of questions that I have received from coaches over the years in regards to the no-huddle offense revolves around communication.

“How do you get lined up so fast?”

“How do you call plays?”

“How do you get all of that information communicated to your players so quickly at the line of scrimmage?”

These are all common questions that I have heard from countless coaches over the years.

This article will deal specifically with the communication process in the no-huddle attack, and how you can apply it to your own offensive system to allow your kids to put the pedal down and “Play Fast.”

The Secret

The secret to doing this is to take your entire offensive system and create a “language.”

This language must allow you to codify all of your offensive play calls in a manner that you can use different terms to identify your core play concepts.

For example in our offense we may have up to 30 different words or numbers that could be used to signify an Inside Zone run concept to the left. Now this may seem complicated, but to our players it is second nature because they understand our “football language”.

How to Install Your Secret Language

As you begin to lay out the design of your play calling code, it is important to remember that the code only has to make sense to your staff and your kids. Just like any language in the world your “play calling code” will be learned in the manner that it is taught.

Many coaches struggle with this part of the process because they want the play calling code to share a common nomenclature. This is often a mistake, as we want our code words to make sense to us but to be very confusing to your opponent

We also teach our code from day one during installation with our players. For example our players do not know the inside zone run play as inside zone. They know it by a code word such as Red or Black. This is all they know.

When teaching your “football language” to your players I do believe that it is very important to not bog your players down with extra terminology that will not ultimately apply to your offense. Your players do not have to know what you would typically call a three level flood route concept for instance, but they need to know only that you call it River and Lake for example. 

What to Consider When Creating Your Play Calling Code

As you begin the process of mapping out your play calling code, there are many factors that you must consider.

First, you want to make it very easy for your players to learn.

If your players are thinking they are not playing fast. Make every effort to create code words in your system that will allow your players to quickly learn and retain the information. By teaching this code from day one as I earlier indicated, you will engrain this “language” into your players and will make your installation much smoother. 

As you create your code you will have your most success if you are able to place all of your play calls into either a number, color, word, or a combination of all of those.

Each of these code words will also have a corresponding hand signal. Begin your installation process by making all of your play designs into one word or number calls.

Remember it does not have to make sense to anyone but your staff and your players.

Red could be a pass or Red could be a run, it does not matter as long as your kids know what that color means in your offense. This will make things very easy for your players to quickly learn and be able to execute the play called at a fast tempo.

By using word association on play concepts you can quickly group common words together that will make sense to your players. This will allow you to quickly call plays and execute at a very up-tempo pace offensively. 

How to Combine Calls into One Word

As you organize your offense into code words you will have success if you are able to combine the formation, motion, and play call into one simple word or number.

Now this is not always possible, but I have been able to do this for the past decade with no issues and it really has streamlined our communication and allowed us to play faster.

The thought process behind this is as follows: at a fast food restaurant they will typically have value meals that are numbered such as #1, #2, #3.

If you say I want a #1 you are ordering a hamburger, french fries, and a medium drink. By just saying that you want a #1, you are able to combine five or six words into one number that represents all of those. A #1 by itself says nothing about hamburgers, french fries, or soft drinks, however because that is the “language” used by that restaurant they will know exactly what you are trying to communicate.

The same holds true in play calling. 

Let’s say we have a jet sweep play call that would typically be called as follows:

(Formation)= Base, (Motion)= Jet, (Play Call)= Sweep, (Direction)= Left.

So in this very elementary play call to communicate this play design the quarterback would have to call Base, Jet, Sweep, Left.

This could all be combined into a one word play call such as DELTA. Delta is a jet and the L in delta signifies that it is being run to the “left”.

The more play calls in your offense that you can successfully codify in this manner the faster you will be able to communicate and crank up the tempo. 

How to Use Word Association

From the previous “Delta = Jet Sweep” example you can see the power of word association.

Other examples of how these word associations can branch off would be if you were calling your “Sail Route” passing concept. Here are a few examples of how it could be communicated with some word association that will make sense to your team but will be complicated to the defense. 

Sail Route= Code Words = Directions Such as North, South, East West. So one way to call sail would simply be to say a direction such as “North”. 

Sail Route= Code Words= Columbus 

Another way to call sail would be Columbus, because Columbus “Sailed” to America.

Sail Route= Code Words= Ohio State, Buckeye Another way to call sail would be Ohio State or Buckeye as Ohio State University is in Columbus, Ohio.

This is just one example where you could quickly use word association and have seven ways to call the same Sail Route concept in your offense. 

The REAL Secret

I suggest letting your players come up with some of the code words or signals that you will be using.

This gives them some ownership of the offense and allows them to have some fun coming up with names for the plays. Remember it does not matter what the play is called as long as everyone understands the same language.

I cannot stress this enough, you are simply creating your own football vocabulary for your program. 

If we are installing a new concept I will typically ask the players in our installation meeting, “Hey, what do you guys want to call this concept”. You will get some crazy answers initially but some will start to make sense as the players understand the word association concept through your other play designs.

For example one year we installed a new screen play, our players at this particular school wanted to name it after hip hop stars. So for that season this screen play was called “Birdman”, “Drake”, “Wayne”, and “Cash” or “Money”.

This used the word association of Birdman, Drake, Lil Wayne all being a part of the “Cash Money” record label. Fast forward two seasons at another school when installing this play our players wanted to name it after major league baseball teams so it became known as; “Yankee”, “Royals,” “Mets,” “Dodger,” “Fastball.”

Just through these two examples you can see how you can quickly name a new play concept with word association that will make sense to your players. 

Why You Also Need Dummy Calls

While we are communicating many things quickly at the line of scrimmage to play fast we do want to have the ability to utilize some “dummy calls” into our offense.

These calls will have no meaning whatsoever for your players.

Some examples of this would be using a dummy color such as “Silver”. This means anytime that silver is used with a play call it means absolutely nothing to our players.

You could do the same thing with numbers, so any 200’s number could be a dummy call such as 201, 250, 275. This allows you to add a bit of meaningless garnish to a play call at the line of scrimmage to cloud any attempts by the defense to try and get a line on your play call mechanics throughout the game.

Because we use so many colors and numbers in our offense I would highly suggest always having a dummy color and a dummy series of numbers that you can use at any time. 

Why You Need Freeze Calls

While we are always having the threat of an immediate snap on the defense we want to have the ability to take advantage of those defenders who are becoming conditioned to our quick pace and snap count.

We want to use the snap count to our advantage to stop them from trying to anticipate and get a “jump start” on the play. We will utilize this “freeze tempo” usually 10 or 12 snaps per game. We will create several code words that will indicate that no matter what else is communicated at the line of scrimmage there will be no snap of the football.

After the quarterback goes through his cadence he will look over to the sideline to receive a new play call and will restart the snap count. Usually you will get the defense to jump off-sides multiple times during the game.

In addition to gaining the free 5 yard penalty, possibly even more advantageous is that you will slow down the get- off of those defensive linemen in trying to time up the snap count.

Here is an example of the mechanics of a freeze call:

Code Words For “Freeze” = No Snap = Green or 99

In either scenario if during the game “green” or “99” is called with any play there will be no snap.

The QB will get to the line of scrimmage with the play call code “Green 5, Green 5”…he will begin his snap count mechanics… “Down..Set..Go…Go Go..Go!”

If the defense does not jump offside the quarterback will look to the sideline for a new play and will begin the new snap count and execute the play that has been signaled in or called. 

This is also a great way to force the defense to “show their hand” with any potential defensive line stems, blitzes, or coverage rotations just prior to the snap.

Remember the defense does not know that we are going to freeze them and they are conditioned to preparing for the immediate snap of the football.

One suggestion on this I will make is that you not make your “freeze” call have anything to do with cold, or ice, or freezing. Use words and numbers that the defense will not associate with a “freeze play.”

Special Calls

We will have terms or codes that we consider to be special calls in our offense. These may be different for your own individual offensive system but the premise will hold true regardless of the system that you are running schematically. We want to have the ability to use one word to quickly tell all of our offensive players to execute something very quickly and efficiently. Here are a few example calls that I believe you need to create and have as a part of your “offensive language” 

QB Wedge

We will have a code word that will immediately tell us to get lined up in the same formations and personnel grouping and for our quarterback to get under the center and run a quarterback wedge (qb sneak). We will typically use this on the goal line or in short yardage to quickly get the ball snapped prior to the defense being able to get their goal line or short yardage personnel or play call on the field. 

Repeat Same Play

After you gash the defense for a huge gain you want to have the ability to immediately line up and run the exact same formation and play call as fast as possible.

As a play caller at the high school level particularly coaches will at times out-think themselves in play calling. If something is working because you have the defense caught in a bad alignment or simply they just cannot stop it at the point of attack with their current personnel, run the play until they stop it.

Force the defense to have to adjust before they find themselves down by multiple touchdowns. This necessitates the need to have a few code words in your arsenal that will tell your players to line up and do exactly the same thing as fast as the referee will allow. Use a term that does not mean to repeat or copy.

Some teams will use words such as Xerox, ext. and I believe that is a mistake. Use something like “Steeler” or “Pittsburgh” to indicate that you are going to repeat the same play. 

Flip The Direction of the Play

This is often used after the initial play call is signaled in when you do not like the alignment at the point of attack and simply want to change the direction of the play. Come up with a series of code words that will tell your players to flip the direction of the play but run the same concept. I would suggest avoiding terms that are obvious such as “mirror” or something of that nature.

If you want to get creative use something that flips such as “pancake.” So if you called your jet sweep to the left but wanted to flip the direction to the right you could call “pancake” and the exact same play would be run only to the right instead of the left. Nothing further would need to be communicated, as your team would know that the “pancake” call was flipping the original direction of the play.

When and How to Use the Double Snap Count

There are times in our offense that we are going to shift or use some sort of deceptive motion or shift that we will use two snap counts.

We have a code word such as “Purple” or “Barney” that will tell all players that there are two snap counts. Typically each week the “Purple” and “Barney” call will involve a special pre-packaged multiple shift or motion concept designed to draw the defense off-sides.

The mechanics for this would be as follows:

1. “Purple” Call is made 

2. Players align in predetermined formation 

3. Quarterback begins the 1st snap count… Down …..Set-Go 

4. On “Go” our players will move or legally shift into a new formation being careful of doing so in a smooth manner and not jerking so that we get a penalty for simulation of the snap. 

5. After this if the defense has not jumped our offense will have shifted into a new formation and will be ready to run the play concept called 

6. The QB will start the second snap count ….Down…..Set-Go, and the ball will be snapped at this time. 

How to Fix Common Problems

With all of the motion and shifting in our offense there are times where a player will be confused and move when he is not supposed to do so.

An example of this might be on the jet sweep where even though the quarterback is giving the indicator as to who is supposed to go in motion, both slot players will start moving towards the quarterback prior to the snap.

An “Easy” call can be made that will tell all players to stop what they are currently doing, reset themselves in the formation called for one second and then the quarterback will send the appropriate player in motion.

This is a little trick that will save you from having to call a timeout or getting an illegal procedure penalty that will bring back a long play.

Having a troubleshooting call such as this in your offense will prove to be invaluable to saving precious timeouts because you are going to get called for an illegal motion or shift prior to the snap. 

Conclusion

Remember, the secret to doing this is to take your entire offensive system and create a “language.”

This language will allow you to codify all of your offensive play calls in a manner that you can use different terms to identify your core play concepts.

And then you’ll be able to play as fast as you want.

Learn More About Coach Liotta and his system here at No Huddle No Mercy


This article was originally published in Headsets: Volume 1, Issue 2.

Shawn Liotta brings 22 years of coaching experience at the high school, college, and professional level. A proven winner; Liotta has coached teams to 5 championships, 7 division or conference
titles, and has coached in 26 playoff games during his career. Coach Liotta is entering his fifth as the Head Football Coach at Burrell High School (PA).

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