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628x471By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs

We’re all familiar with the coaching maxim, “less is more,” but what if you can do more offensively, yet make it seem like less to your players? In this research report, over 100 high school and college contributors shared their ideas, anonymously of course, on the verbiage/call system they use to limit their playbook.


By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar



Case 1: Communicating Personnel Groupings and Formations


628x471In this case, we focused our research on how coaches were grouping formations and personnel to make them more relatable to players. We’ve found coaches can have upwards of 8 personnel groupings and over two dozen formations. We wanted to find ways in which coaches are simplifying their offensive packages to utilize as many groupings/formations as possible without jeopardizing the learning curve of their athletes.

Number of Personnel Groupings

Our research below indicates the amount of personnel groupings coaches are using per game. The majority of coaches, 38 percent, use four personnel groupings per game.

Reader Responses:

We surveyed coaches and asked the following question:

Q: What has been the most efficient way to group or relate the names you use in your personnel groupings to make it more understandable for your players?

The responses are below. We kept them anonymous in order to protect identity.

Color System:

“We use colors, with the darker the color the more run-focused the grouping can be. For example, Black is our Maryland-I formation, which almost 90% run. White and Grey colors are two back pistol formations, which are closer to 50/50 run/pass.”

Default Formations:

“All our formation calls come off our base formation, which is double twins. The X and H are on left side and Y and Z are on right. We use one word for the formation such as ‘Ace.’ Then we have specific words that tell our wide receivers and tight ends where to be. Such as ‘Ace Hit,’ this tells the H to come across formation. This has worked better for us than when we just said ‘Pro Right or Left’ because it tells each kid where to be. Bronco and Buffalo tells our B back (H back) where to align. An example would be Bronco ‘Yo.’ B would be to right and Y would go over to left to create a Pro twins look.”

Weather Names:

“We use weather names; 10 means lightning; 11 means thunder and 20 means tornado.”

Vocalizing Formations:

“We simply yell out ‘two-back’ if we want the H-back into the game and we'll call out a receiver (usually a slot) for him to replace.”

Picture Boards:

“We use boards with pictures to move players from the same personnel groupings and formations to different places within the called formation.”

Hand Signals:

“We use hand signals and fingers to represent formations. After we put up the different fingers we make a fist to add a tight end to the formation. An example is four fingers represent a 2x2 formation. Now if we make a fist right after putting up the two fingers we know one side will have a tight end.”

Word Associations Based on Positions

“We use names that relate to the primary focus of the personnel group. For instance, ‘hammer’ could equal a big fullback and our best tailback. ‘Jumbo’ could equal our biggest skill guys. ‘Falcon’ could equal three wide receivers and ‘Trojan’ could equal our three best running backs.”

“The best way is to associate by position or by physical attributes of your different players. Examples include ‘big’ personnel for your taller receivers or extra tight ends. ‘Extra’ personnel for your entire X are to be in the game at certain positions. ‘Zebra’ personnel for all of your Z's to be in the game at certain positions. ‘Speed’ personnel is used for your fastest guys at certain positions, and so-on and so-forth.”

“We use names to identify personnel groups that are used for multiple formations. ‘Sam’ equals no tight end. ‘Ted’ equals one tight end. ‘Henry’ equals one H-back. ‘Hannah’ equals one tight end and one H-back.”

“Like most teams, we designate positions with letters. We name the personnel groups with words containing the letter or letters of the position or positions within the group who is/are the ‘adjuster(s).’ Let's say that the personnel group is Horns. This group includes Z & J (outside receivers) S & H (slots) and R (RB). The H is the ‘adjuster’ In Horns personnel Tiger, the H aligns in the slot to the right side of the formation regardless of hash. In Horns personnel Lion, the H aligns in the slot to the left side of the formation regardless of hash. In Frogs personnel, the Z & J are still on the field and S is still on the field, but H Back is replaced by the F and the F is the ‘adjuster.’ In Frogs personnel Tiger, the F aligns in the slot to the right side of the formation regardless of hash. In Frogs personnel Lion, the F aligns in the slot to the left of the formation regardless of hash. Tiger and Lion are 2 x 2 formations. In 3 x 1 sets, all positions have a ‘home base’ and we have tags to move them around within the formation. In Thunder personnel, the Z remains on the field, but now the tight end (T) and the H Back (H) are part of the group along with S and R (RB). Both T and H are ‘adjusters’ in Thunder personnel formations.”

Editor’s Note: Optimizing Your No Huddle Communications. Go Here.

Word Associations Based on Player Names

“We use initials of our players to get in the right personnel groupings. We have groupings such as ‘11R,’ where a kid named Riggot is the H and the two other wide receivers memorize whom the X and Z is. We also have ‘11DZ’ which a kid named Dorian was the Z. It’s something that makes sense to the kids. We gave them some ownership in it. When we are not playing fast, we really want to personnel things to get the best guys to the right place for each specific play.”

Number System

“We use the number system (00, 10, 11, 21, 22, etc.) only because they can easily understand when we have fullbacks or tight ends in the game based on the number system. They call out the wide receiver they replace and the wide receivers know who calls them off typically anyway.”

“We use the defensive number identification system based on running backs and tight ends. We used names before, but just thought we would stop trying to outsmart ourselves.”


Case 2: Motions, Trades and Shift Verbiage

Number of Motions


The majority of coaches will use between two and four motions per game. We found this number to be particularly low, but there were some innovative ways in which coaches are calling their motion package and finding ways to tie it into their offensive play packaging.

Numbers of Trades, Shifts

It seems it’s feast or famine for most coaches at it pertains to using trades and shifts in their offensive package. The majority of coaches will use two types of trades or shifts per game, while the second highest response was zero. Much of the reasoning behind negating the trade and shift package was it stymied up-tempo football and didn’t allow offenses to play fast. We did reach out to several coaches who used trades and shifts and asked them the following question:

Q: How do you call your trade and shift package? Are they separate words added to call? Are they built into the call? Please include an example.

Reader Response

“It’s built in to the call. For example, we would use ‘Lion trade 24 power.’”

“If we shift, the play call begins with ‘shift to.’ For example: shift to right, read right, on one, etc.”

“Words are added to the call. Our shift has to do with the tailback. If we feel a team is lining up their defense based on our tailback we will have them shift to the other side or start in a deep position and shift late. For example, ‘doubles shift right zone left’ would mean the tailback starts on the left side of the quarterback or directly behind him. On ‘down,’ the tailback shifts to the right of the quarterback, pauses for a second, and the quarterback says ‘go.’”

“We tag it at the beginning of the call. For example, in ‘shift to right,’ he’ll start in left and end in right.”

“Our trade was built into the call. For example ‘tank 8’ indicates formation, trade, motions, and play call. The offense is aligned in a 12 personnel. The quarterback calls ‘ready,’ the backside T comes over between play side tight end and tackle. The play side slot shifts to the bottom of the numbers and backside shifts in one by one to backside guard. Then the quarterback will finish out cadence and run the play.”

“They are an added word. For example, ‘red move to blue’ tells them to start in a red formation, but end up in a blue formation.”

“We add the term jump to the call. For example, ‘Empty jump right blue colt’ would mean we would start in Empty to the field and shift to our two-back right formation just to run inside zone to the left.”

“We call it ‘Air Force.’ Our A and F (Tight end and wing) will line up in regular wing and shift to the other side. The play call might be right air force 39 Pitch. We would line up in wing right and shift to unbalanced wing left and run fullback pitch to our weak side.”

Case 3: Coordinating Run and Pass Concepts


This case presents the research we conducted on how coaches are packaging and communicating play concepts to conceptualize it better for their players. These break down into run and pass concepts and how coaches are marrying these calls.

Classifying Run Concepts

Reader Responses

We asked coaches the following question as it pertains to the run game:

Q: Please explain how you classify the types of run concepts in your system (interior runs, perimeter runs, traps, draws, etc.).

Their responses are below. We kept these responses anonymous to protect identities.

Concept Classifications

“We use inside zone, outside zone, gap scheme and power schemes.”

“We have one interior run concept (inside zone), one exterior run concept (outside zone), two gap schemes (counter and one-back power). Off those concepts, we can tag just about anyone we want to run that particular play. We read everything except our one-back power all the time (every now and then we'll run the power read which is the same concept, it just has the option of being a gap scheme or outside zone scheme).”

“We have inside zone, mid zone and outside zone.”

“We have five run concepts- inside zone, outside zone, power, counter and draw.”

“We have zone schemes, scheme runs, traps, draws and perimeter runs.”

“We classify all of our runs based on blocking scheme. Each blocking scheme has a line call so that we can say this play is blocked ‘same as’ this play. Our blocking schemes are: power Blocking, tight zone blocking, stretch blocking, counter blocking and trap blocking. Examples could be the following:

  • The play is 32 Tight Zone (inside zone right). The line call is "Bears, Bears".
  • The play is 31 Tight Zone (inside zone left). The line call is "Cal, Cal".”

Editor’s Note: Planning No Huddle Practices. Go Here

“We have two speeds to plays = Quick (Quick hitters) & Time (Longer developing). Our runs are grouped into the following categories:

Inside Plays: Quick= Trap, dive, wedge/Time= Zone, Power, Counter, Draw
Outside Plays: Quick= Jett, quick pitch, speed option/Time= Stretch, Toss,
Power/Push: Quick= Dive, Wedge/Time= Zone, Power, Counter
Trap: Quick= Inside trap/Time= Counters
Misdirection: Counters.”

“We have a zone grouping (tight, middle or C-gap and outside). We have Power and counter which feature gap and kick schemes. We have pin and pull outside runs which look like buck sweep chute runs and we run draws versus 5 and 6 man boxes.”

“We use the following classifications:

  • Inside Run Game (Tite Zone, Inside Zone, Mid Zone, Power, Counter)
  • Outside Run Game (Outside Zone, Speed/Zone Option)
  • Reaction Series Run Game (RPO Plays).”

“We categorize our run plays in two groups: zone run game or gap/down game. We have run plays that attack each gap for both categories. We use names to distinguish between the two groups. All zone run play names have an overarching theme and each play call fits under that umbrella. The same with the gap/down game.”

Number Classifications

“The higher the second digit in the play call, the further out the run is. Zero and one are between the Guard and Center, while 8 and 9 are toss sweeps.”

“We use a number system. Backs are numbered 1-4. Holes are numbered even to the right and odd to the left. The hole number designates the blocking scheme. For example 0/1 = Wedge or Trap, 2/3 = Counter, 4/5 = Counter Trey, 6/7 = Power, 8/9 = Sweep. We will add words to slightly change schemes like: 36 Power, or 36 Read have slight adjustments in blocking. 12.13 Counter or 12/13 Lead has minor differences in scheme.”

“We use a number system such as the following:

0 Hole is Wedge Blocking--this can be 30 or 40 or "Washington" or "Redskin"
1/2 is Trap--21, 31, 32, 42, or Tennessee or Titan
3/4 is ISO--33, 34, etc. or Indy or Colts
5/6 is Power--35, 45, 46 or Pittsburgh or Steelers
5/6 Counter--55 or 66 only. The double numbers mean counter or Chicago or Bear
7/8 is Sweep--27, 38, etc or Seattle or Seahawk.”

“We group them by number and name. By now our kids are used to us calling the play based on the nickname we have for it, but they could still tell you what the play is based on the number system (20's are our TB, 10's are our QB, 30s/40s are the second back/slot receiver).”

“Our plays are called by number and given a code word such as the following:

Ends with 0 – inside zone
Ends with 2- trap
Ends with 4- power
Ends with 6-gap
Ends with 8-osz
Ex 10 or Indy –inside zone right
11 or Iowa – inside zone left"

“We use runs in series by numbers. For example:

Option runs single digit
Zone runs=10's
Man blocked runs- gap blocking/pulls= 20's
FB oriented runs= 30's
Two-back runs= 40's.”

“We use the hole numbering system, but that is mainly for the meeting room. We speak with the code words at practice.

Inside Zone is 12/13
Outside Zone is 18/19
Power/Trap is 14/15 & 16/17
Draw is 10/11.”

Classifying Pass Concepts

Reader Responses

We asked coaches the following question as it pertains to the pass game:

Q: Please explain how you classify the types pass concepts in your system (quicks, screens, shots, play-action, etc.).

Their responses are below. We kept these responses anonymous to protect identities.

Numbers Classifications:

90s = Quicks
80s = Sprint out right
70s = sprint out left
60s = 5 step rhythm
50s = screen left
40 = screen right
Play action adds the word "POP", or "SOLID" to any pass play. 62 Solid, 36 POP

90 - three step
80 - five step
70 - sprint
screens - N.B.A. names
PAP - N.F.L. names

"Quicks are called by number: 1, 2, 3, 4. Each route has a corresponding complimentary route.

Ex: Quick 1 = hitch by outside receiver and a seam if there is an inside receiver...any third receiver has a rule as well. All screens, play action, and drop-back passes are named with code words.
Ex: Bandit Right = Bubble Right"

60 series - drop back
70 series - screens
90 series - quick game
"P" - playaction (block aggressive 60 series)

Editor’s Note: Increasing Offensive Production With the No Huddle

Concept Classifications

“We use five groups:

1. Half-field concepts/beaters (paired routes against a coverage).
2. Play-action (Boots, Nakeds, Sprints, etc.)
3. Screens
4. Shots
5. Full Field Concepts.”

Simplifying System Guidelines

We asked our contributors to reveal something that they have used recently to help simplify an offensive package for their players, as it pertains to communication protocols. Here’s what we asked:

Q: What is something you’ve learned in regards to simplifying an offensive system to make it more understandable for your players that you’d like to share with our readers?

Some of the more thorough responses are posted below:

Packaged Concepts (RPO’s)

“We have made our offensive blocking based around one concept, that we find a way to make work for all types of plays. Unless we are in shotgun pass, our offensive line constantly looks like it is run blocking an inside zone, which keeps problems to a minimum when it comes to missed assignments.”

“We are using more RPO style plays and are making them one word calls whenever possible.”

“If there are concepts that you are going to consistently package, come up with another name/signal for it. We were tagging quick screen to inside zone quite a bit, so we gave the packaged concept it's own name & signal so we don't have to signal both.”

Mirror Wide Receiver Calls

“We mirror our wide receiver calls to both sides of the field, with our first word as the inside most receiver, and the last word is the outside receiver. With our inexperienced team (only 2 years as a program), we have many athletes new to the sport. Lots of our calls need to use the same linguistics to avoid confusion.”

Give Players Accountability in Making Calls

“Let the players have an input whenever available. Whether it be allowing them to come up with the pictures on a no huddle play board, or allowing them to design the hand signals. It's much easier for us to remember a few signals then it is for 60+ players to remember ours.”

“Teach all code words from the beginning of your installation. Let the players use word association to make up code words for concepts your are installing in season. If you put something in you have to take something out of the game plan. We use a low number of plays with high reps and play at an incredibly fast pace. We only use one snap count. This allows us to play fast without having to worry about signaling our snap count in or changing cadence.”


Improving Coach to Player Communications…

Join X&O Labs’ exclusive membership website, Insiders, and get instant access to the full-length version of this research report. Here’s just a short list of what you’re missing in the full-length report:

  • How coaches are cutting down on verbal and signal cues as well as using “default” formations to eliminate the pre-snap communication process.
  • How some coaches are building pre-snap motions into one-word calls and using motion trees to get their players in the right place to execute their assignments.
  • The various code word classifications that can be used to group run families together.
  • How coaches are correlating protections with pass concepts (either by number or concept) to increase tempo.
  • How to use word associations to formulate verbiage in your single-word play calls.
  • Plus a look at how many concepts (run and pass) you should be entering each game week with.

Join X&O Labs’ Insiders Website. Go Here!


Like much of our research, the intent of this study is to provide you with ideas and methodology to shorten your communication and group your concepts into efficient offensive play calling. The mantra “less is more” reverberated through our findings. The key is if you can do more and still communicate less (or have your players understand less) than your chances of being productive drastically increases.



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