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By Mike Harrison, Athletic Director/Head Football Coach, Holy Cross High School (TX)

Build confidence with your players by developing defensive call cards, which eliminate second guessing, freeing players up to recognize formations and opponent personnel tendencies.

By Mike Harrison
Athletic Director/Head Football Coach
Holy Cross High School (TX)



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Facing an up-tempo, multiple formation offense has forced us to find ways to match the offensive pace while being able to bring pressure, check coverages and have sound formation adjustments. It has been our experience that athletes who are confident in what they are doing play instinctively rather than reactively. Instinctive athletes tend to play faster and therefore become “playmakers”. Our ability to communicate effectively is the center of our defensive system and is based on the following principals:

  1.  Ease of communication through the use of wrist bands
  2.  Front end preparation by coaches
  3.  Putting information in an easy and coherent format that players can use in games


Our success is a direct reflection of our players and staff “buy-in” to this system. Once implemented it takes a tremendous burden off the players and allows them to play with confidence. In fact, our players affectionately refer to our defensive wrist band communication system as the “idiot card” due to its


Using Movement to Gain Numeric Advantages

The goal of an up-tempo offensive scheme is to disrupt the defensive signals so that the defense is misaligned.  This creates a natural mismatch for the offensive team to expose. The most common response of any defense when struggling to get calls in is to run their base defense. The offense takes away your ability to attack, and they gain the ability to dictate the flow of the game. In our defensive scheme we rely a great deal on movement to be successful, and we use automatics to gain a numbers advantage against certain formations, aligning in base would hurt us.

We wanted to be able to maintain our aggressive defensive style against any tempo offense we face. It simply took too long to signal a call in from the sideline to communicate the defensive front, stunt and coverage. The other factor we considered is that we wanted to be able to check/audible our defensive call by offensive formation-we wanted the ability to align differently vs a 1 back or 2 back set.


Limiting Defensive Techniques

The emphasis is on mastering a few techniques and then using those techniques to communicate effectively with the team through individual positions. Limiting the amount of techniques an athlete will utilize in a game allows them to execute those techniques at a high level. The greatest failures defensively usually fall in one of about three areas: 1. Alignment, 2. Reads and 3. Gap Responsibility. Our focus is to reduce those mistakes by effective communication against the up–tempo teams. 

We focus on coaching techniques with only a few formational adjustments that are predetermined, such as our wing/nasty rule for our OLB’s. The techniques are limited by position which again, allows athletes to learn few things, but do them very well. Most importantly with this focus on technique, it allows more quality repetitions at practice. This means we will become more instinctive and less reactive.


Using Coaches Call Card

The coach’s “call card” has the following; Word or Number of the defensive call, the Front, Stunt and Coverage as well as Pressure.  In addition, we have our defensive automatics on the card. Here you can see that our TULSA front (odd stack) carries our word calls and our MACHO front (3-4 package) carries our number calls. Against this particular opponent our word calls were vs their 2 back formations and the number calls were vs their 1 back formations. Each snap has a call for 1 back and 2 back sets. The automatics are not called and the players have to know their automatics without looking at the band. What I like is that the automatics, words and numbers change each week so no offense can chart what we do week to week.  All of our coaches have a rough draft of the card throughout the week of practice, and it is always with our call sheet on game night.  This way we can chart all of our calls, and at halftime we have the ability to see which pressure packages have worked best and which ones have not been as successful.  Adjustments are then made according to the data and flow of game.

Diagram 1



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  • The information included on the defensive line call card, including how alignments and techniques change against one vs two back formations and against option runs.
  • The information included on the inside linebacker call card, including alignments, reads and blitz responsibility adjustments against one back vs. two back formations.
  • The information included on the outside linebacker call card, including varying support calls based on the offensive formations presented.
  • The information on the cornerback and safety call card, including the formational adjustments based off unbalanced, empty and diamond formation sets.
  • The process by which this call card is designed and finalized collectively by defensive staff members during the course of game week.


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Game Plan Call Sheet

The challenging part of this method of defensive communication is the creation of the wrist band techniques.  By this I mean the actual typing out of the bands, and correlating them individually to function as a whole. Our method of completing our bands is to first create our call sheet (SEE DIAGRAM #1). By doing this we have our calls, fronts, stunts, coverages, and checks created and in order. Then each position coach will type the band information for their position, because they are the one’s communicating it and who better understands what their players need than the position coach teaching it. Unfortunately, this can be time consuming; but we believe its positives outweigh the negatives. We distribute the wristbands to the team on Monday during game plan and film session. Once we create the bands we will meet every night after practice to discuss what went well and what might need adjusting. It is in this time that we begin to finalize our game plan call sheet.  This call sheet is broken down by field position, down and distance and favorite plays.  This is how we build the calls we want to use in each situation.

Diagram 6



What we have found in doing this for the past 7 years is that it has cut down tremendously on miscommunication and misalignments against up-tempo teams while increasing our ability to be as aggressive as we want to be. We believe that this is one of the primary reasons for our success. Our young men play with great confidence because they know exactly where to line up, who and what to read, and what their responsibilities are. This eliminates second guessing and frees them up to recognize formations and opponent personnel tendencies. The players are actually “playing” football and not having to think about where and what their responsibilities are.


Meet Coach Harrison:  Mike Harrison has been a high school football coach in Texas for 30 years.  He has been a head coach for 18 years and has a record of 111 wins 78 losses and 3 ties.  He has been the head football coach at Holy Cross of San Antonio for the past 8 years and has won 5 district championships, 6 area championships, 1 regional championship and led the Knights to the state semifinals in 2016. Coach Harrison has had the privilege to coach in two state championship games as an assistant coach.




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