Aug. 31, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
If you pay attention to modern college football, it’s impossible to miss the yelling and pointing and so forth before the ball is snapped. At times Monday night when Georgia Tech opens the season at Virginia Tech, it may look a fire drill.
That’ll be OK as long as the Yellow Jackets are communicating the right way more often than not. That’s especially true on defense, where there’s more of this hollering and fidgeting as players react to the offense.
Much of Georgia Tech’s success this season will come down to how much better the Jackets are this season than last not just at yelling, pointing, patting each other on the back and so forth on the field, but the way they talk off of it.
It starts with the young men on the field. They have to be fast and strong hitters, sure. They also have to be keenly candid and lucid upon reaching the sideline between series in recounting for coaches what they’re facing and in discussing what they can and cannot get done.
“The trust factor is very significant,” said defensive coordinator Al Groh. “Players have to trust themselves to make the right call. Players who are receiving the call from the sideline have to trust the accuracy of the information that they’re getting. I have to be able to trust the players when I ask them a question like, ‘Can you handle [your] guy?’
“If you can, that’s great. If you can’t, I can get you help. But don’t tell me that you can … don’t let ego get in the way. Games have never been lost because players or teams over-communicated, but games are lost because teams under-communicate or communicate the wrong information.”
It will be noisy in Lane Stadium Monday, although moreso when the Jackets possess the ball rather than when they’re trying to slow the Hokies. Still, there may be times when the Georgia Tech defenders are trying to adjust to Virginia Tech’s personnel and formation changes that they cannot quite hear each other.
This will be where you’ll see some rudimentary pantomiming, perhaps see a linebacker or defensive back bumping a down lineman on a hip, or maybe one defender flash an odd signal to others.
“It’s not entirely verbal,” said junior linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu. “We sometimes yell. sometimes you have to point. Sometimes it’s a nod or a pat.”
In breaking this down to the simplest analysis, there is the defensive game plan and the way that defense adjusts its plan upon seeing how the offense is attacking it. Those adjustments rely heavily upon communication from the ground level through sideline assistants and up to coaches in the press box – and then back.
There rarely is a lot of time for idle chat in making assessments and then adjustments. So, Georgia Tech players and coaches try to speak the same language. You wouldn’t understand.
“We have to communicate very specifically and very expeditiously,” Groh said. “We can’t say, ‘Do you know what I mean when I say this and this and this?’ There’s a word for that one, particular two-paragraph thing. I could speak to you in a very articulate fashion in which you would understand what I said no better than you would understand Greek.
“Younger players have to learn a whole new language before they can learn the system. Some young players move ahead faster than others, and it may not be a physical ability thing but the ability to learn the language faster so they can understand instruction. The material they have to learn is really the equivalent of many of the courses they would take for the fall semester.”
Attaochu said part of the reason the Jackets struggled with big Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas last year was as much about defenders in the wrong places at the wrong times because of misunderstanding and/or poor communication as it was about Thomas’ size.
So, everybody’s been working the Rosetta Stone pigskin review.
“Early in the summer we were educated by coach Joe Speed on what we call different formations and how coaches communicate so when we get on the sidelines we can say, ‘Coach, I saw this,’ and they can make adjustments,” Attaochu said.
“Being able to communicate is key and … not just say, ‘I saw two receivers on this side.’ You can say, ‘Gun near, Gun far, two receivers three-by-one.’ It helps your coaches understand what’s going on.”
There’s a lot more language to learn as the game has grown. Defenses have to be prepared to do more than before. Reaction time is critical not only on the field, but between the field, the sideline, the coaches’ box and back again. All of it is driven by offense.
“With the way the game is played with the constant changing of formations and personnel, the advantages are with the offense in many circumstances,” Groh said. “Not too long ago most teams were lining up with two wide receivers and they were Pro left or Pro right with two backs in the backfield, and every once in a while you might see a little bit of slot formation.
“Now, you’ve got quarterbacks carrying the ball, and wide receivers throwing passes, motion, two or three formation changes before the snap … all in an attempt to confuse the defense so they can’t make the proper adjustment and they’re out of position. Right now, the math game is all in the favor of the offense.”
For what it’s worth, Groh said the ‘Gun near’ and ‘Gun far’ references have to do with the position of a running back relative to the formation. We might be amazed at all the lingo, or nomenclature, as he referred to it. Fascinating stuff. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @mwinkeljohn.