Problematic Play Calls Contributed to Loss

CHAMPAIGN - Last season Akeem Spence needed only to seek out coach Keith Gilmore on the sideline before each play.

Under Ron Zook, each defensive coach was responsible for his unit's play call. That meant Spence, now a junior, looked to Gilmore for what the defensive line was to do at the snap. Linebackers and defensive backs looked to their coaches accordingly.

That system of communication left with Zook. In it's place, coach Tim Beckman and his defensive staff installed a one-step method to relay the play to the field.

One coach now signals in the play call to the entire defense -- what type of rush from the line, a blitz or lack thereof by linebackers, the coverage in the secondary, the everything.

"It's a real different change that we've got to get used to," Spence said.

There were no issues or confusion in the season opener against Western Michigan. The Broncos run a wide open passing attack, but they don't scurry to the line-of-scrimmage at breakneck pace to get the next play started quickly.

Arizona State's offense, on the other hand, may as well be comprised by a group of protestors petitioning to erase the word hesitation from the English language.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly rushed his troops to the line as fast as possible after each play in the Sun Devils 45-14 win Saturday, leaving little time for Illinois to get lined up, receive the play call and comprehend what was about to happen.

"The crowd was into it and they were up-tempo," cornerback Justin Green said. "That kind of threw us off a little."

Kelly had virtually no trouble connecting with his targets, completing his first 10 passes and building an insurmountable lead early on.

It almost looked as if the Illinois defense didn't know what was going on. And that, Spence and Green admitted Monday, was actually the case.

"At times, yeah, there was some issues with that," Green said.

The senior is referring to play calling; receiving the specifics of what to do before each play.

Here's the way it works: Up to three coaches or assistants use hand signals to send in a call. Only one is motioning the actual, intended play to run. The others are acting out mock calls in an attempt to throw off the other team, who may or may not have somebody stalking the signals.

It's not hard to figure out where the first breakdown occurred. Some players, Spence said, were looking at the right person. Others, made clear by a lack of execution time and time again, were not.

"It's guys having the discipline to look at the right guy and know what's live coming out on to the field," Spence said. "We've got to make sure everybody knows which coach is live or who is live coming to the field."

There is a way to check and balance the method of delivery. Suppose one or two players are having trouble with the initial signal. What should they do? What would you do? Ask somebody who knows.

"That's why it's important for us to all echo what the coach has signaled in to us," Green said.

That safety net was sliced down the middle by Arizona State's swift action.

Considering one coach was signaling in all aspects of the play, the Sun Devils left virtually no time for the Illini defenders to talk out any confusion.

If a player happened to be looking at one of the dummy calls, there wasn't time to look over and ask the man next to him for confirmation or reassurance. By that time the ball had been snapped.

"I think the speed in which they were running plays is something that is hard to practice, but we did practice it as best we could," Beckman said.

Arizona State had full control of the game by the time the Illinois coaching staff could get everybody on the same page. Upon it's return home Sunday, the defense went into full-on crash course study mode to fix the mistakes.

Many of the players watched tape of the game by themselves before gathering as a group to break it down once again. Spence watched the film four times, as painful as it was to watch.

"We just came in as a veteran defense, guys just sat down and explained what they were supposed to do on that play and what they had thought what was going on instead of guys bickering and just pointing fingers," he said. "Just getting everything fixed."

Moving forward, the system for delivering the play calls may need to be re-worked, especially if another high-speed offense is encountered.

Perhaps a growing pain attributed to the offseason change of staff, Saturday night provided a hard knock lesson for both players and coaches, two entities that embodied the famous line from 1967's Cool Hand Luke -- 'What we got here is... failure to communicate.'

"That was something that we have to get adjusted," Beckman said. "Worked on it (Sunday)."

Said Green: "It can be fixed as long as we're all echoing the call and working together as a unit. It shouldn't happen again."

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