If you don’t remember, Cal has also been involved in a signal stealing incident. In 2006 against Tennessee, a Tennessee coach admitted that they knew some of our defensive signals. That story can be found here.
In summary, Tennessee claims that they were able to decipher our defensive hand signals and knew what formations we would come out in. This is not the first incident of possible signal stealing. A few years ago against Oregon there was some fuss about Oregon stealing our signals. As we all know, Tedford coached at Oregon and it’s very possible he might have carried over some of the hand signals he used there.
Although Tedford says that he doubts any signal stealing occurred against Tennessee (in 2006), he has nevertheless taken precautions against signal stealing.
The Patriots incident deals with stealing defensive signals because the NFL does not allow radio helmets for the defense such as what the QB wears for the offense. Thus, hand signals must be used to send in the plays on defense. In college football, no radio helmets are allowed and hand signals must be used on both sides of the ball to send in the play. Stealing signals is very much a real possibility in college football.
First let’s talk about offensive signals. In the first few years of Tedford’s tenure at Cal, if you watched the sidelines while we were on offense, you would have noticed that Cal used two signal men. The reason for using two signal men is that the other team wouldn’t know who was really sending in the true signals. Of course, the QB knew. But now Cal only uses one signal man. You might ask, how is this an improvement? Well, even though we only use one signal man now the signal man only signals numbers. Previously, both signal men would actually send in real hand signals that corresponded with the formation, dropback length, protections, WR routes, etc. And even though the other team may not know who the real signal man is, they would be still seeing real signals. If they tried hard enough, they could probably figure out who was the real signal man and then work towards deciphering the hand signals. But with the new system, all they are seeing are hand signals for numbers. Ever notice how the QB always looks at his armband in the huddle to call the plays? That’s because the number that is signaled in corresponds with a numbered play on the armband (there are approximately 150 plays on the armband). Now, under the current method of offensive signaling, in most situations the opponents will never see any hand signals that actually correspond with anything other than a number.
Now defense. Defensive signal stealing defensive is very possible in college football. Most teams actually signal in hand signs that correspond with the defensive play rather than a number. If you watch the sidelines while Cal is on defense you’ll see various coaches sending in signals to our defense on the field. It doesn’t take a genius to figure which coach corresponds with which players – a simple internet search can reveal that. The next big hurdle is simply deciphering the signals. For the other team, the process isn’t that complicated. They can see our signals, watch the play unfold, and see what those signals correspond to. After a few more plays to cross-check their assumptions, they could easily know what a few of our signals mean. But even with this extra knowledge, it is pretty tough to change the offensive play after one has already been called (especially in hostile conditions). Nevertheless, this possibility is becoming more and more threatening with the growing popularity of no-huddle offenses.
As most of you know, Tennessee utilized the no-huddle offense against us in 2007. Their offense lines up on the LOS quickly, forcing our defense to quickly line up too. This quick set-up allows them to diminish the defense’s ability to substitute, as well as mask the play. With the inability to mask the play, Tennessee coaches can now call an audible, or a different play at the LOS, based on what they see from our defense. All this of course has to happen before the play clock runs out. But since the offense is hurrying to the LOS, they have more time than those teams that huddle up.
Recall that against Tennessee this year, they would go to the line of scrimmage, go under center for a few seconds then look towards their sideline. They are looking to see if the Tennessee coaches would like to change the play based on what they see from the defense (for another GREAT example of this type of no-huddle offense, watch Appalachian State versus Michigan from two weeks ago).
Now imagine if Tennessee knew our defensive signals. They can force our defense to line up quickly and for our coaches to quickly call a defense. Tennessee will have plenty of time left on the play clock to read those signals, and call an appropriate counter play to our defense. This can be deadly.
Protective countermeasures must be established to protect the defense from being exploited. Thankfully, such preventative countermeasures have been established. It is becoming more common nowadays for defensive players to also use armbands. The defensive coaches will often send in a hand signal corresponding to a number, which in turn corresponds with a play on the armband. This method limits the other team’s ability to steal signals. Nevertheless, the defense is still at risk. While armbands are used, there are A LOT less plays on the defensive armbands. Occasionally, or more frequently than we’d like, hand signals corresponding with the defensive plays are still used and vulnerable to deciphering.
So while Tedford may not think that any signals were being deciphered by Tennessee or Oregon, he certainly is taking precautions to play it safe.