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The art of calling plays as an offensive coordinator

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NCAA Football: Miami Spring Game Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

With a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos, there is plenty of reason for speculation to brew. With the quality of tight end type bodies on the roster in Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory we should expect to see multiple tight end sets. If Tate Martell wins the starting quarterback job we should expect to see more shotgun sets than under center from the ‘Canes, too.

Beyond those personnel and schematic issues there’s also the game plan and in-game adjustments. Under the Richt regime in-game adjustments were minimal on offense and could be quite impressive for the defense under Manny Diaz. I already covered how coaches prepare their game plans here on SOTU before (click here).

Now let’s cover what goes on a call sheet, how to get your stars the ball, and why some OC’s like to up in the press box while others like to be on the field.

Call sheets

Call sheets are always cool looking when they look like the cafe menu on Schitt’s Creek and have a bunch of colors and boxes. However, at what point do you just scrap the sheet and make play calls based on what is working right now? I am a firm believer in going with my gut instinct and using my call sheet as a reminder.

Paul Johnson, the now retired former Georgia Tech head coach, didn’t use a call sheet. His entire offense was in his head. Bill Walsh was one of the first to attempt to document every single possible scenario for down, distance, field zone and hash on his massive call sheet. Hal Mumme has one but thinks Walsh’s call sheets and huge playbooks are a waste of time.

In fact, Mumme and his mentee Mike Leach have never used a playbook. They are firm believers in small playlists of cut-ups and not even showing the players full games. I agree with that mindset. When it comes to a call sheet I would rather have the press box coach tell me what’s working than rely on prior data. What if their best defensive player you were avoiding rolls his ankle? What if on 3rd and 10 your best plays is actually a screen and not a deep post?

Call sheet by field zone

That is a sample of my call sheet based on field zone. The “-5” you see means that your offense has 95 yards to go. When I have my back to the end zone I don’t want to pull offensive linemen, do anything that requires a 5-step drop, nor do I want to take any negative yard risks.

What defensive adjustments do I usually see in -5? For one a lot of teams like to pressure to see if your center will give up a bad snap, or if your blocking scheme can’t hold up with the rush coming. A great way to limit a defense down to certain coverages and pressures and get a more predictable look is by going empty.

If I’m going empty at the minus five I’m going to have to get the ball out. A concept like Stick could work in that situation and Mike Leach likes it both at -5 and at +5.

I have ran stick two different ways: one the traditional way where the #3 receiver runs a sit down and the #2 receiver runs a speed out while the #1 runs a vertical (see the GIF below).

I have also ran stick where the #3 still runs the sit, but the #2 runs a vertical and the #1 runs a 10 yard out (see GIF below).

How do I get Jimmy the ball?

The game of football is all about getting your players the ball. Many feel it’s Jimmy’s and Joe’s not X’s and O’s. I think it’s using your X’s and O’s to get the most out of those Jimmy’s and Joe’s. Just an example would be how to get a star running back the football. In my offense, I could hit him on double screens, swing routes, by lining him up in an empty set as a slot receiver, and he’ll obviously carry the football. I believe in “touches” not carries for running backs.

But it could also be about making sure your best wide receiver is a target on specific plays. In the Air Raid that could be your Y receiver. Y-Sail, Y-Cross, and Y-Stick are a few of the famous plays in the offense and there’s a reason they’re named after him: he’s supposed to be the man. He’s also incorporated into mesh as a main target, too. So the Air Raid is built to get their star the football and that’s how I see it, too. Our slot has to be a prime target and if I write down “Dave Smith” on my chart I can list 4-5 plays that will go to Dave so he can do his thing.

Who are the Jimmy’s and Joe’s that must be on Miami’s game plan? Deejay Dallas has to be one option as he can line up at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. Jeff Thomas has to be on the list with his elite speed and ball skills. Brevin Jordan should be on there, too. Jordan can line up as a receiver, tight end or h-back and must be a vertical and horizontal weapon for Miami to take advantage of his mismatches.

On the field or in the box

As an offensive coordinator I’m going to be on the field in 2019. Since I’m going to be on the field I need my coach in the press box coached up. Thanks to Phil Longo from UNC, I’ve taken on a system of creating a “read sheet” for my press box guru. The press box guy has to watch a ton of scout film, document things like coverage and pressure per field zone, and down and distance.

It’s also the press box coach’s responsibility to communicate yard line, hash, down and distance and any other key information about the upcoming play. If you’ve created a good call sheet your press box guy understands your if/then plays. For instance, if the flat defender is playing press man and the cornerback is backed off, we’ll run a quick screen instead of a bubble. If we’re consistently getting a 5-man box we need to run.

If I was to call plays from the press box, which I did in Oregon for half of a season, I need my on-field coach well schooled in reads and terminology. The beauty of the R4 system from Dub Maddox (I recommend every picks up a copy of From Headset to Helmet) is your entire offensive staff (and hopefully defensive staff, too) are using the same terminology between players and coaches.

In the press box I had a hard time communicating my thoughts to the quarterback during the game. I rely heavily on the quarterback to make their own play calls, adjustments, and to tell me what he or she is seeing on the field. It’s part of the Trust-Based Coaching model that I have created over the years with my players. It goes beyond football but for this specific instance it’s all about the trust I’ve built with the player by preparing him for the game.

However, also in the press box, there are some positives. One positive is that you can see the entire field. It’s hard to call full field passing concepts, have a feel for RPOs, or see if running lanes are open or not from the side line. Another positive is it’s calm. Down on the field coaches wind up dealing with plays coming toward the sideline, players asking questions, referees and chains getting in the way, and guys coming on and off the field while you’re trying to concentrate.

NCAA Football: Miami Spring Game Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports


No matter who is named the starting quarterback, Dan Enos has a young passer and it might benefit him to be down on the field. Whether it’s Martell, N’Kosi Perry or Jarren Williams the trio doesn’t have a lot of experience and being able to be face to face helps. There’s nothing in coaching like making eye contact with someone while you communicate the convoluted concepts football has to offer.

If Enos is down the ‘Canes will have to decide who goes up in the press box. Usually analysts are going to be up there for tracking in-game data but who will be that trusted set of eyes and ears for Coach Enos? I’m not sure but I would imagine someone he has past experience with in coaching.