Cam Hart lined up during a Good Counsel football practice earlier this month and snuck a look at senior quarterback Kam Snell. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound signal caller returned Hart’s gaze, lifted his right arm up and pointed to his triceps.
Hart knew exactly what that meant. The senior wide receiver, a Notre Dame commit, had first lined up at the numbers but then moved inside toward the offensive line before the ball was snapped and ran a post-corner route.
Snell’s simple yet critical sign is known only to Hart, the “option” receiver in second-year Coach Andy Stefanelli’s offense, and it serves as an example of the increased importance of hand signals and other forms of nonverbal communication that are taking over high school football.
As teams look to play faster, there has been widespread adoption of many of the hand motions, arm bands and sideline placards that have become commonplace in college football, replacing the traditional quarterback jog back to the sideline before delivering a play-call in the huddle.
For Good Counsel players, it was a welcome change as the team looked to modernize its offense after Stefanelli took over for legendary coach Bob Milloy, Maryland’s all-time wins leader.
“We were known for having the oldest offense ever,” Hart said. “Group chats would call us the World War I offense. So I feel like now we are catching up. I feel like we are more like a St. John’s and getting to a DeMatha or a Gonzaga because of the hand signals and communication and check-with-me offense and stuff like that.”
There are still a significant number of teams that practice traditional communication methods. But as many new, younger coaches enter the high school ranks, and veteran coaches seek to try something new, the game has picked up speed.
Brandon Huffman, a national football analyst for 247Sports, said the shift started at the high school level five to seven years ago, after Chip Kelly elevated Oregon to a national powerhouse with an up-tempo pace that wore down opponents. While football innovation often travels from high school upward, in this case high school coaches stole from what they were seeing at the college level.
“You see more schools doing it because that is what college programs are doing,” Huffman said.
Howard University Coach Mike London said most freshmen who arrive on campus have already experienced different signals from the sideline in high school, including wrist bands and even large boards held up by coaches and players on the sideline.
“It just becomes a game of charades,” London said. “It has definitely morphed into a way to communicate fast and succinct at a level that captures the imagination and attention of players.”
Speed isn’t the only concern for coaches when getting the play in. Clarity is also a point of emphasis. Some signals can be troublesome, with coaches or players sometimes touching the wrong part of their body on a play-call. Stefanelli said that when Good Counsel implemented new arm bands, the calls written on them became too convoluted and the presence of too many plays required the font to be so tiny that it was difficult to read.
For Lackey Coach John Lush, whose team uses arm bands for each position group, simplicity is critical.
“The way we try to do it is the least amount of hurdles for our kids to jump through,” Lush said, “to make it as efficient and easy for our kids as possible. That is the goal. It is not what I know. It is about what the kids know.”
Kyle Simmons, the coach of three-time defending Virginia state champion Westfield, considers his offense largely traditional. The offense huddles on most plays and doesn’t play at the same breakneck pace desired by others, but every play-call comes from the sideline via hand signals: A coach signals to the wide receivers what the formation is and a different coach signals the play-call to the quarterback, who tells the rest of the offense.
“Sometimes what you hope is that you have a couple smarter kids out there who can communicate to the others,” Simmons said.
There is also the issue of sign-stealing, which for some is a reason to avoid incorporating hand signals and signs into play-calling. Milloy recalled one game in which another team’s signals helped give Good Counsel a victory.
“We had another team’s signals down pat and we really won that game because we knew their signals and they knew it, too,” Milloy said. “They were just too arrogant to change them, so we knew 90 percent of the plays they were going to run and our defense would watch their coach.”
One frequently used method to combat this is having backup quarterbacks signal in different calls alongside coaches, acting as dummy signal callers to perplex opponents while the “live” coach or player is the only one calling the correct play.
“It’s funny listening to some of the coaches in the [college coaching] box,” London said. “They will be like, ‘Oh, I think I know who the live signal guy is. It’s the guy with the two arm bands and holding the Jack Nicholson sign.’ ”
At Good Counsel, players and coaches are still getting acclimated to the new offense. The team finished 8-3 in Stefanelli’s debut season and enters the 2018 campaign ranked sixth in The Washington Post’s preseason top 20 rankings. College-bound players hope the familiarity will help them adjust to similar systems at the next level. But for now, Hart and Snell will continue to work on learning each other’s signals in practices and during games, hoping to pass down their tricks to the next group of players.
“I like this offense better, with the signals and all that,” Hart said. “It’s just a matter of the young boys learning how to read defenses better and watch film.”