May 25, 2024

How college football adopting helmet communication will be complicated process as sport continues to evolve


College football will finally add helmet communication for all Football Bowl Subdivision games beginning this fall after the NCAA approved a rule change in April. The monumental switch comes after years of lobbying and conversation about cost and liability, and it will radically shift the game moving forward. 

The rules for college football helmet communication largely mirror the NFL, which first brought the technology to the field in 1994. Only one player on each side of the ball will be allowed to have a radio in their helmet, signaled to officials by a green dot. Communication will be shut off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock or when the ball is snapped, whichever comes first. 

“There’s a lot of unique opportunities with the headset,” Nebraska coach Matt Rhule told CBS Sports. “And what I love about it is you’re preparing the guys on offense for the NFL, because they’re going to be using it in the NFL.” 

CBS Sports spoke to coaches and former players across college football to understand how teams may use helmet communication in the fall, including Rhule, a former NFL coach with the Carolina Panthers. While the rules may be similar, differences between college football and the NFL means its implementation could look drastically different. 

The offensive question: to huddle or use tempo?

Over the past 20 years, the traditional huddle has largely disappeared from college football. A handful of teams still huddle to slow down the game and install a play, but most communication now comes from the sidelines via hand signals.

Ultimately, offense face a fork in the road with the introduction of helmet communication. Slowing down the game and moving towards the huddle allows teams to increase complexity and become harder to defend. To the contrary, running no-huddle concepts with helmet communication allows teams to be even more efficient. 

“I think you’ll see some teams go back to the huddle,” Rhule said. “I’ve talked to some coaches who say they’re going to go faster than ever because the defense isn’t going to be able to use the headset for themselves. I think different teams are going to take it in different ways.” 

For tempo offenses, a quick call can go to the quarterback, who can then shout out or signal a play in seconds before the defense truly has time to react. However, quick play calls limit complexity. Going back to the huddle allows teams to be highly specific with protections and checks. 

In 2023, Power Five teams averaged 26.1 seconds per play. Nineteen such teams sat under 25 seconds per snap, meaning their average snap took place before the play clock struck 15 seconds, which will be the cutoff time for incoming calls. Among those were spread tempo offenses like Tennessee, TCU and Colorado. However, 14 teams cleared 28 seconds per snap. Among them were Alabama (29.82) and Georgia (29.2). In fact, no team in last season’s final top 10 averaged a snap count within 25 seconds. The closest: Texas at 25.5 seconds. 

The biggest zag on the board was national champion Michigan. The Wolverines were the only power-conference team to clear 30 seconds per snap. During a miserable 2-4 campaign in 2020 that led to sweeping changes, Michigan averaged 24.9 seconds between plays, a full six-second difference. Since Sherrone Moore was elevated to co-offensive coordinator in 2021, Michigan has slowed down the game and used extra time to set up motion and misdirection. The results: a 40-3 record with three Big Ten titles. Moore was promoted to head coach in January. 

“I’m all about [helmet comms],” Moore told the Detroit News in December. “I think it would be easy communication from the coordinator to the quarterback and create no issues outside.”

Lakota East High School (Ohio) coach Jon Kitna spent nearly two decades in the NFL, largely as a player but most recently as quarterbacks coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. Though he acknowledged helmet communication technology has come quite a ways since his NFL debut in 1996, Kitna sees its greatest value as a tool to give notes and get players into the right headspace entering a play — especially younger players. 

“Just being able to drop a little nugget to the quarterback,” Kitna told CBS Sports, “a reminder ‘Here’s third-and-9, but we don’t need to get it all back here. We’ll go for it on fourth-and-3.’ You can just kind of put the quarterback at ease.” 

The rise of no-huddle offenses has largely coincided with the spread of simplified language and concepts to match. Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn played in a far more complex, NFL-style offense with the Fighting Irish. Like many such offenses, the Fighting Irish often used wristbands to set up play calls. 

With helmet communication, Quinn is optimistic that many teams will diversify their offensive calls and become even harder to cover. Having experience and consistency at quarterback in a transfer portal world becomes even more of an advantage. 

“Hopefully, you’ll see quarterbacks be given more,” said Quinn, who now works as an analyst on CBS Sports HQ. “I think that’s the tough part as a former quarterback, when you’re running an NFL offense in college, you can have responsibility and control to prepare you for the next level with certain run checks and pass checks and everything else. Hopefully, some of the coaches will put the onus on these quarterbacks, especially as guys have played four or five, or in some cases now, six years.

“These guys are experienced. It’s not like they haven’t seen a lot of ball. I think they’re capable of doing it.” 

Finding counters on defense

While helmet communications could be a major innovation for offenses, many around college football are skeptical that it will be a primary play-calling tool for many defenses; the pace of college offenses dramatically impacts the way communication occurs on the other side of the ball. 

“With it only being in one defensive player’s helmet, it’s hard in that regard,” one SEC defensive coordinator told CBS Sports. “You’re not going to have a defensive huddle because you don’t know what the offense is going to do. You’re still going to have to signal in your defensive signals … it’s going to be a process.” 

Without a huddle, defensive coaches can’t as easily communicate plays efficiently through a single player. Instead, signaling from the sideline — a place where all 11 players can see — may actually prove more efficient. Ultimately, helmet communication systems may be more helpful for checks and adjustments instead of replacing existing systems. 

Playing high-level defense is a chess match that forces coaches to provide counters to an offense’s moves, but complications may arise if offenses prepare adjustments to which defensive coaches can’t respond. One concern that came up multiple times: quarterbacks waiting at the line for the helmet mics to turn off at the 15-second mark of the play clock, and then checking into a completely new play or formation. 

Some defenses will try the same thing, with plans to mix up coverages on the quarterback after the play clock strikes 15. That’s still a more difficult maneuver, however, especially knowing the ball could snap at any moment. Of course, playing slower offenses would allow defenses to better utilize the technology, but every unit has to be ready to play at a disadvantage. 

“Defenses have to be prepared,” Quinn said. “They have to have the automatic calls for a blitz, they have to have the automatic calls to get back to a safe play in coverage, they have to have all those things built on. They just have to be extremely organized.”

Another complication is the relative transience of defensive personnel during a game. On offense, the same quarterback will almost always have the green dot on their helmet. If that quarterback subs out, it’s easy for equipment staffs to prepare any backup quarterback with helmet communication.

While a handful of players spend the vast majority of snaps on the field defensively, there’s no offensive equivalent. Even MIKE linebackers can get subbed out in certain packages, which could leave the defense without a wired in player on the field. Most coaches told CBS Sports that a linebacker would likely sport the system because of their access to both the first (defensive line) and third (secondary) levels of the defense. Spring has been a chance for many programs to try out different plans.

“Some games, it’s going to be something we can use a lot [defensively], but other games it’s going to be something we can’t use very much,” Rhule said. “It just depends on the tempo of the opposing team.” 

The future has arrived

Helmet communication have been a topic on the NCAA’s agenda for years, but the timing of its approval falls right as sign signaling has become a hot-button issue in the sport. Reigning national champion Michigan is still under NCAA investigation for illegal sign-stealing, which led to former coach Jim Harbaugh’s three-game suspension from the Big Ten at the end of the 2023 regular season. Weeks later, the NCAA allowed teams to test drive helmet communication during select bowl games. 

Sign stealing by analog remains fully legal in college football, and some staffs are known for catching on exceptionally well. Despite the rule change, many are still skeptical that it will ultimately eliminate sign stealing. 

“I think this idea that helmet communication is going to limit signal in, which is going to limit signal stealing is completely off,” Texas A&M coach Mike Elko told reporters in March. “The ability to talk to one guy isn’t going to eliminate your ability to have to signal in offensive and defensive plays.” 

One defensive coach suggested that the NCAA could allow every player to have a headset in their helmet to better streamline communication. In his eyes, that’s the most foolproof way to eliminate sign-stealing completely. Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who serves on the NCAA’s rules committee, had a similar idea. However, such a rule would be unprecedented in football. Additionally, wiring a full team would be far more expensive and labor intensive. 

So who benefits the most from helmet communication? At first glance, it seems it will help many of the same groups that have benefited most from the game’s evolution over the past several years: quarterbacks and offenses. Ultimately, the 2024 season is a lab experiment. While not every FBS program will choose to use helmet communication, 134 staffs have a chance to find their own advantage with it … or whether it will work for their program at all. 

“I’m excited to see what happens,” Kitna said. “I think it’s good to have and probably should have happened 10 years ago. I mean, they’ve been making billions of dollars for a long time. The cost effectiveness of this should be minimized now with all the money that’s out there in college athletics.” 





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