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Mechanics of Football: Q&A with Coach Brett Banfield pt. II

CFP National Championship Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

We’ve reconnected with Coach Brett Banfield for another Q&A before the start of the college football season. Coach Brett Banfield is the special teams coordinator, pass game coordinator, and wide receivers coach at Anna Maria College, a Division III program in Massachusetts. He designs the special teams schemes and works with the offensive coordinator to design the passing plays they’ll run each week.

In July, we discussed co-coordinator situations, player safety, O-line blocking schemes and more. You can read that article here. After that discussion there were several follow-up questions that our readers had and we’ll try to answer some of those today.

STS: You’ve likely seen the strange play card signs Clemson uses in their hurry up no huddle offense. Much like a manager giving signs in baseball, we’re not privy to each one means, but could you give us the scoop on how this communication process works? What information needs to be exchanged from the coaching staff to the players and how does the communication of that information change in a no-huddle offense? How is this different for the defense?

Playstation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Coach Banfield: This is probably the most common question I am asked by friends and family. The reality is that the cards are different for each team so I can’t necessarily pinpoint how Clemson uses them. That being said, I will go through the communication process as well as talk about the different ways cards are used and let you extrapolate from there as to how Clemson uses them.

In any offense there are two major things that need to be communicated to the players from the sideline: the formation and the play. These are the most basic and yet most essential aspects of any communication whether the offense is huddle or no-huddle. For the purposes of this article (as I assume everyone here wants to apply it to Clemson’s offense), I will talk about the no-huddle communication procedure.

First thing is the communication of the formation. Knowing where to line up is crucial as different alignments can change player responsibilities from play to play. Most every offense has the ability to run a play out of multiple formations, however the responsibilities can change for players if they are in a different alignment. Therefore, it is crucial to communicate the formation quickly to the offense so that they may get set up and wait to be told the play. There are a multitude of ways in which formations are communicated. This can range from using those cards as formation identifiers, signaling in from the sideline, or one word calls echoed from sideline to sideline.

From there the play can also be communicated in the same way. What you may notice is missing from this communication is the snap count or motions. These are often built into the play or formations in the modern up-tempo offense and thus do not need to be signaled.

As for the play cards, they can mean a few different things. As discussed, they could identify the formation for the offense. They could also indicate the snap count or the play. However, one of the fun things about those cards is they can sometimes mean nothing! I have coached against staffs that used the cards simply as dummies to distract the eyes of the defense and the defensive coaches.

STS: Deshaun Watson was given a lot of latitude to check in and out of play calls. He also pointed out coverages and moved running backs around pre-snap to better aid in pass protection. Can you shed some light on how this works and how it impacts an offense? What is a QB looking for and how much or how little latitude can be given to a QB at the college level?

Coach Banfield: This is a more difficult question as it really depends on the offense and the trust in the player. Deshaun is an incredibly gifted human being both athletically and mentally. He had earned the trust from the offensive staff to be able to make checks and help with protections. This is not the case at all places however. Often times, coaches have younger QBs that they do not trust to make those checks or protection adjustments so you see many offenses looking back to the sideline for that.

As for how all works it’s actually relatively simple to understand yet difficult to master as a young QB considering the litany of other distractions and responsibilities heaped on them pre-snap. Many times you see a QB move his running back or talk to the OL it is when they see a tell from the defense showing a blitz that they recognize and putting players in the best position to pick it up. This communication is a normal thing for most QBs and thus can usually be trusted to handle it during games.

STS: On that same topic, it’s well known that our RBs struggled in pass protection last season. How much can a QB impact that? How much do coaches consider pass protection versus running ability when determining who to play? If a certain back enters in passing situations, does it tip off the play call?

Coach Banfield: Pass protection is a major factor in determining the right back for the offense. Back when I coached RBs the mantra was “you don’t block, you don’t play.” I had loads of talent in that room, but if a guy couldn’t pass block then the next guy would and I’d play him.

The QB can only help so much in improving this however. It’s the old “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” scenario. The QB can help set him up to be in the right place to protect but if the back does not have sound technique or truly understand the scheme then there is nothing more the QB can really do. As for tipping plays, that is certainly the case. Defensive staffs live for tendency so putting in a certain back just to pass pro, even if its 75% of the time, is still such a tendency that defenses will play for the tendency.

STS: Clemson has two very interesting QBs on campus with the senior QB Kelly Bryant and the five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence. Bryant offers good running ability at the position while Trevor Lawrence seems to provide deep ball accuracy. How do defenses change their strategy based on those skill sets. What and how much will they adjust as Clemson substitutes between them mid-game?

Coach Banfield: That’s always tough to say as a guy who hasn’t been on the defensive side of the ball in years. That being said, there certainly is a difference in how a defense approaches QBs with different skill sets. One of the best examples I can give is the 2006 Florida Gators. Chris Leak, who was the starter, was a prototypical pocket passer with great touch, while this young freshman named Tim Tebow was a battering ram and option runner with not much in the passing arsenal. How a defense approaches these two is drastically different. Against Leak, you prep for a more traditional run game with a RB and maybe a FB. While with Tebow, you had to prepare for QB run as well as an option-style run game. To a defense against Leak you can worry more about traditional run fits and coverages, while against Tebow you had to have more players in the box to account for the QB run and be gap sound for option responsibilities.

This of course allowed the offense to take advantage of what the defense gave them, which for Leak was some occasional big QB runs and for Tebow some play action passes against man-to-man or no coverage. Adjusting in game isn’t that difficult if the defense is prepared for the two QB styles, it is two game plans with a little adjustment such as a QB spy for Bryant and more traditional coverages for Lawrence. However, it does require the defense to spend time on both plans, which makes them less effective at either plan.

STS: Many Clemson fans have heard over the years that the first drive or two of the game is often “scripted.” How much of the play calling can be pre-planned and how much is done on the fly?

Coach Banfield: Most every offense comes in with a script to start a game and half. This is based on the week long research and studying of the opposing defense and schemes and formations that you believe will bother the defense.

From there most everything else is called “on the fly.” That being said all good play callers are two to three plays ahead in their minds on each call and always have a plan. They rarely if ever do anything just off the cuff.

STS: Clemson recently announced a home-and-home series with LSU. The games will be played early in the 2025 and 2026 seasons. If you’re a major Power Five program, what advantages do you see to playing an FCS opponent vs. a non-conference power in the opening week? Do you have any strong feelings on the trend towards neutral site games that Clemson bucked with this LSU series?

Coach Banfield: As a fan I love this trend of big time early season match ups between non-conference powers. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s new. That being said I can see both sides of it as a coach.

I often see fans clamor for the big time match up, but then if that match up yields a loss they will be the first people upset that the team lost a non-conference game. Many coaches that play in a power conference don’t necessarily want to tack another toss up game to a schedule that already has many pitfalls. Coaches are judged on wins and losses and the schedule rarely ever factors into that bottom line in the end.

If you are a team on the fringe of the rankings or even a team with a weakened conference, a big match up can be a great thing to help the perception of your level and schedule if you are trying to make a run at the playoff.

As for an FCS opponent, the disadvantage is that it’s a lose-lose scenario. If you don’t win the game by enough or a player gets injured it’s a loss to the fan base and if you lose the game it’s an embarrassment. The advantage is a great tune up game for a team trying to work somethings out the become the best version of themselves.

STS: Lastly, I wanted to get your thoughts on tackling in practice. Recently, at Grayson High School, the players walked out on practice citing overly harsh practice conditions that included “full force hitting in shorts” (AJC). The Ivy league has removed full contact tackling from their regular season practices. What does tackling in practice provide as far as player preparation and coaching insight? Are there useful alternatives or complements to it?

Coach Banfield: This is an issue that will continue to evolve over time, I just hope it doesn’t go as far in terms of overreacting as the new NFL hit rules. Full tackling in practice is something in my experience that is rarely done in season. With a game as tough on the body as football, most coaches want players to stay as healthy as possible while still working techniques and thus rarely practice live.

There is a need for the occasional live practice so your team knows how to tackle a person at full speed and what the speed of an actual game will look like. Those practices should be very few and far between as player safety is paramount. There are also different types of equipment and drills that can be used to simulate this as well such as tackling rings.

This has been fun once again. Thank you for having me back!

STS: Thanks for joining us. This has been good learning from me and I hope our audience feels the same way. Based on your comments, I’m even more sold on the idea of Clemson running a two-QB system for the first couple weeks of the season.

Again, Brett is a Coach at Anna Maria College. They kick off their season on Friday, August 31st vs. Worcester Polytechnic Institute. You can follow Coach Banfield on Twitter here. If you have more questions, post them in the comments below and we’ll try to entice him to return for another Q&A down the road.