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October 2, 2008

No huddle new hurdle for Notre Dame foes

It starts with coach Charlie Weis, carries up to Mike Haywood in the press box, who then sends the play down to Ron Powlus, who signals in to quarterback Jimmy Clausen as Rob Ianello alerts the receiver on the side of the field closest to the Notre Dame bench.

Maybe it's not quite as fun as the old tin cans with a string attached. But the lines of communication to get plays sent into the Irish offense when they choose to go without a huddle are open and functioning well.

"It's pretty easy," said Haywood, the offensive coordinator and the triggerman for the operation.

Here's how it works. The Irish go from the previous play to the line of scrimmage. They don't use a huddle, which prevents the opposition from mass substitutions for fear of the Irish lining up and running a play during the transition.

Weis tells Haywood what formation he wants to run, and from there, Haywood selects a play from those that use that formation. Haywood sends the play down to Powlus, who then uses a fairly elaborate system of hand signals to relay the play to Clausen.

Powlus' signals indicate a number, which Clausen takes from his wristband and relays to the players. If the players aren't familiar with the corresponding number and play, they'll look at their wristband as a reminder. Clausen alerts the receivers to the side of the field closest to the opponent while Ianello informs those closest to him.

And they're on their way.

"You can study our signals all you want," Weis said. "But unless you know number 32, it's not going to do you a whole heckuva lot of good."

The no-huddle shouldn't be confused with the two-minute offense. In the two-minute offense, the Irish are trying to get the plays off quickly. The no-huddle offense is much more methodical. The Irish let the play clock run while standing at the line of scrimmage. The ball usually is snapped with five-to-eight seconds left on the play clock.

"The advantages for us are that it spreads people out," Haywood said. "At the same time, they don't run in and out different personnel groupings on defense. So you know what personnel is on the field.

"If they're in 4-3 personnel, it tells you what you can do versus the 43. If they're in 42 personnel, it gives you an idea what you can do. If they're in 33 personnel, it gives you an idea what you can do. It provides us an opportunity to see what we're going to get before we get it, and we can make the appropriate calls."

There are adjustments in the procedure. If Haywood thinks the offense should be running out of a specific formation, he'll initiate it or suggest a change to Weis.

For Clausen, there is a bit of a comfort zone working from a no-huddle system. He did it a bit at Oaks Christian High School in California. Besides, he sees very little difference between getting in a huddle and taking a signal verbally compared to standing at the line of scrimmage and taking the signal manually.

"It's pretty much the same exact thing except for the time management," Clausen said.

Powlus - the man who generally signals in the plays in the no-huddle - prefers to say as little as possible about the procedure since he is, in many respects, the equivalent of the third base coach giving the signs to a batter or base runner. There's really no way of stealing Notre Dame's signs since he's signaling in a number that only the Irish offensive players can see on their wristbands. But he's still cautious about revealing the nuances of the job.

"It will differ from game to game," said Powlus, who may not always be the only guy signaling along the sideline. "Coach and I will have that conversation. I don't want to say too much to give away our secrets."

Sometimes Powlus' signal process is skipped all together. If Clausen is close enough to the sideline, Weis or Powlus will simply tell him the number.

But the signals that the players are looking for have remained the same for years, even dating back to Weis' days with the New England Patriots.

"We never adjust them. We add to them. But they're the same as they were four years ago. Brady (Quinn) could watch television now and call out the plays. Quarterbacks at New England could watch it and call out the plays."

At least some time is spent in practice each day signaling in plays from the sideline.

"We practice it every day so there are no mistakes," Haywood said. "If we go three team periods, we signal all three team periods. We don't take anything for granted. We work it every day. That's the only way you're going to get better at it."

Of course, no system is perfect. Sometimes the wrong signal is sent in accidentally.

"Every once in a while there's an error," Haywood said. "I'll say, 'Hold on, what number was that?' Then you'll see us change the number immediately on the field. It happened last game (against Purdue) where we had to change the number."

By and large, however, the operation runs pretty smoothly - and even seems to be assisting in the offense's steady improvement.

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