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Non-Verbal Communication 101: Dealing with crowd noise during play calling; An interview with former Cougar center

THE SELLOUT CROWD at Martin Stadium last Saturday night played a part in Washington State’s decisive defeat of the Ducks, coach Mike Leach said afterward. For opponents, a fired up crowd truly is the equivalent of facing a 12th man. And WSU may be on the other end of things this Saturday vs. Stanford (7:30 pm, ESPN). Combating that audible energy isn't easy, but it is possible, former Cougar lineman Joshua Duin tells Cougfan.com.

The non-verbal communication that takes place between WSU center Riley Sorenson, with QB Luke Falk and his fellow offensive linemen, is often considerable -- before the Cougs even get into their stances. That's key, said Duin, who played for the Cougs from 2002-2006, learning from one of the best (OL coach George Yarno) and protecting one of the best (QB Alex Brink).

“When it’s a road game and the crowd is really loud, you can’t depend on verbals,” says Duin. “You have to learn tricks and techniques. Our offensive line schemes under George (Yarno), we had certain responsibilities. The center is always responsible. You can’t turn around to the running back and yell, ‘Hey, block this guy.’ With a point, a gesture or a tap, you can avoid relying on verbal communication that can get misconstrued because of fan noise.”

The process of communicating a play call, generally, comes as the center and quarterback are visually scanning where the defense is positioned. While that is happening, the quarterback will be barking out play call signals.

“Other times, one of the first things you see is the quarterback walking to the line and pointing out coverages," said Duin. "When you see a quarterback point, they’re giving the receivers and running backs (the information of) where the safety is or what kind of coverage the defense is in. Then you’ll see the center give a point, too. That’s to center the offense (usually) on a run play. It’s also to tell the quarterback and the running back where they expect to be hot and where they never expect to be hot.

“There’s one thing that a quarterback will never do naturally and that is to touch the center on the back,” said Duin. “The communication of; ‘Do not snap the ball right now because I’m not in position’ is to walk up and touch the center on the back. That tells the offensive line we’re changing something. We need time to adjust. When you see that it means the quarterback has noticed something and is making a change. You might see a guard or tackle reach over and tap his teammate and point to an area of the defense. That often is recognition of a blitz coming. The hand signal can make it possible for the line to adjust to the blitz and pick it up without saying a word.”

Because most Pac-12 teams run their up tempo offense out of the shotgun formation, there isn’t an opportunity to make play calls in a huddle. The offensive line begins the process of lining up almost immediately after the previous play is whistled dead.

In many cases you will see the center begin scanning how the defense is setting up and using hand signals to the quarterback to help his decision making process for calling the next play. The hand signals often continue after the rest of the line is in their two- or three-point stance. It’s almost a certainty that when you see the center put his hand behind his back, non-verbal communication is taking place.

“It’s like a catcher calling pitches,” Duin explained. “He’s got a certain number of fingers up, no one can see it, no one knows. A center can use the same concept by putting a certain number of fingers on his backside that only the quarterback and running back can see. When you see that happen, I assure you it’s important to the play.”

“Many times the OL first gets into place along the line, they identify where the defense is lined up. Depending on the call by the quarterback, they may signal by pointing at a defender in a key zone. For example if a pass is called, a lineman would signal to the running back a linebacker so the back knows: they are responsible for anyone left or right of that player rushing, that is his blocking responsibility.”

None of these techniques are exclusive to one team. That’s where gamesmanship comes in.Even in packed stadiums, there are lulls during a game where verbal communication by the offense is possible.

“With an experienced line that is comfortable enough, and you know where his guy is going to be and know what he’s going to do, verbal calls can be 'dummy calls,'” said Duin. “It can be like a catcher throwing down four or five signs when there’s a runner on second base. The pitcher and the catcher will be the only ones knowing which sign is the actual call.

"So when the play should be a run to the right or left, there may be six or seven verbal calls but only one can possibly be for the play you’re actually running. A lot of times you need to echo a call down the line so the left tackle and the right tackle know what the back side is doing.”

Regardless of the noise factor, one motion even the most casual of fans can see a good deal of before the snap:  a lineman batting or tapping their hip or butt.

“Guards and tackles are signaling to running backs that are pass blocking that they are taking the inside Level Two defender (linebacker or safety sliding in)," said Duin. "This is a common signal used as a dummy signal in the run game. It means nothing on a run play, but an experienced lineman will do it to throw off the defense.”

This Saturday against the Card, when you see the Cougar offense break a big play, it will have begun with non-verbal, and quality, communication before the ball was ever snapped.

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