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Signaling Calls to the Defense

This is an excerpt from Complete Linebacking, Second Edition by Lou Tepper.

Since writing the first edition of Complete Linebacking in 1997, the biggest change in football occurred with the transition from the 25-second clock to the 40-second clock. In 1997 offenses and defenses generally huddled unless in 2-minute situations. Today defenses rarely can huddle, and in 2013 our team faced only one offense who did.

For players and staff, signaling calls to the defense can be some of the most anxious and exciting moments in the game. Coaches and players must exchange information quickly and precisely. The communication must be clear. One inaccurate word can change the entire concept of the original call. The quicker the information is signaled, the more confident the unit will be and the more time they will have to study the offense at the line of scrimmage.


Our staff introduces our defensive signals on the first day of practice. It is a language of its own that must become second nature. Time is so precious on game day that all must feel comfortable with the signal system. We use our signals on every snap of inside drills, 7-on-7, and all-team periods at every practice session throughout the year.

As our scheme unfolds, we gesture the base calls frequently. We give those repeated calls multiple signals. For example, a common front, stunt, or coverage may have three different hand motions for a given opponent. A blitz, if decoded, could be attacked effectively by the opposing offense. Even though we may man blitz only five times in a game, we use multiple signals to hinder the offense from stealing them. Last season one opponent had two graduate assistants assigned to our signals to decipher them!

Alfred Williams played as a true freshman as our rush linebacker. He was not a powerful run player early on, but he was an immediate-impact pass rusher. Alfred and Simeon Rice were similar. Alfred won the 1990 Butkus Award and became All-Pro after being drafted in the first round.

Courtesy of University of Colorado Athletics

Back in the days of the 25-second clock, a defensive coach had the luxury of waiting until after the offensive signal was given, and it was rare the defensive signal could be used in time to help the offense. Now with the 40-second clock, a stolen signal can be used to easily change the offensive call. If the defense doesn’t get the signal in quickly and the offense is in an up-tempo mode, that defense is put at a real disadvantage.

Choose your communication system carefully. Hand signals and wristbands are common, and each has their advantages. Just make sure the calls are received clearly and on time.

Learn more about Complete Linebacking, Second Edition.

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