Ever since Chip Kelly unveiled his groundbreaking system of calling plays at Oregon in 2010, sideline play cards have become ubiquitous across college football.
Yet, more than a decade after their introduction, they’re still rare to see in the Massachusetts high school game.
But with one of the most significant COVID-19 regulations banning traditional huddles during games, some coaches are beginning to embrace the idea of sideline play cards, which the MIAA listed as a suggestion in its modifications.
“We wanted to head in that direction,” said Brandon Mendez, head coach at Old Colony RVTHS in Rochester, which broke out play cards for the first time in its Week 1 loss to Tri-County. “I don’t know that we were ready to implement it right away, but we were thinking down the road. Then when the guidelines came out about huddling, we decided now is the time.”
Just a half hour down the road at Dartmouth Memorial Stadium, two-time Super Bowl winning coach Rick White stands near a Milwaukee tool box filled with brand-new laser-engraved signs as he raves about his assistant coach Sam Madden’s suggestion to implement the cards.
“It’s worked a lot better than we thought,” White said. “It’s been a lot of fun. With a shortened season, we’re trying it out now and I think we’ll continue to use it in the fall.”
White’s excitement is matched by his players, who barely know the college game without ever-more creative images held aloft on the sidelines.
“I was ecstatic,” said Indians junior quarterback Will Kelly. “I watch a ton of football and a ton of film. I watch all these offenses, wishing we could run them, and now we do.”
“The first couple of days it was hard, but we got the hang of it really quickly,” added Dartmouth junior Patrick Crane. “I think it’s great for our offense because everyone knows what they’re doing right off the bat.”
The Indians beat New Bedford in their season opener by playing mostly no-huddle, then jumped out to an early lead in Brockton in Week 2 using an up-tempo style.
“It really focuses you when you have all 11 guys knowing what the formation is and they also have to know what the play is,” White said. “It’s up to you as the individual to know what you’re doing. You’re not listening to the quarterback in the huddle. Now it’s on you to know the play. Everyone is the quarterback, in a sense.”
Multiple other high school coaches the Globe spoke to said they considered going to the sideline placards to deal with the huddle modifications, but didn’t want to add another new element to a season that’s already strange.
For Mendez, it was the extra time he had this offseason that allowed him to explore the idea and eventually decide to bag the Cougars’ colors-and-numbers no-huddle system in favor of play cards.
“A lot of the offense I run I steal from Auburn, Clemson, that type of power-read stuff,” he said. “Those guys are using it, so I had a nice offseason to research how they utilize them.”
Once Mendez settled on his plan, he took the idea to Erin Murray, a graphics art teacher at the vocational school.
“They put a couple of students right on it,” Mendez said. “It gave the kids a project with some artistic freedom in it. They did a phenomenal job with it.”
Old Colony’s signs feature a combination of social media apps, company logos and other imagery that is usually phonetically linked to a specific play or formation. Dartmouth’s feature colleges and professional sports logos, although not always football (hello, St. Louis Cardinals). They were crafted by assistant coach Adam Desjardins, a middle school engineering teacher and member of Dartmouth’s 2008 Super Bowl team, who used a laser cutter the school recently received thanks to a grant.
“This is coach Sam Madden in his think tank coming up with a plan and coach Desjardins spent a lot of time,” White said. “These aren’t store-bought.”
“It was an easy, but time-consuming process,” Desjardins said.
With the placards in hand, next came the task of installing the system. It turned out, that wasn’t as hard as expected.
“A lot of people are visual learners,” White said. “We didn’t realize how well it was going to work, as far as our guys picking up the calls and focusing. Focusing on the spoken word, for teenagers right now, is kind of a lost art.”
There’s also been a payoff on the field. In Old Colony’s season opener, the Cougars had just one offensive penalty, a false start in the first quarter. Dartmouth also had a false start early in Week 1 against New Bedford, but in two games the Indians have been whistled just three times for illegal procedure penalties.
“It’s been excellent,” White said. “We’ve made very few mistakes and offensive penalties. Everyone has been on the same page.
“We’re definitely going to do it in the fall.”
Scheduling changes continued to fly at athletic directors and their football programs in the third week of the Fall II football season.
But schools have been quick on their feet to find new opponents, sometimes in unlikely geographic pairings.
Take Framingham, which had its Bay State Conference game against Walpole cancelled Wednesday morning, but pivoted quickly to find a game at Winthrop on Thursday night. The Vikings were open since Swampscott remains on pause.
More games are on Thursday night than Friday this week due to Good Friday.
With Duxbury’s game at Whitman-Hanson cancelled, the Panthers will face Rockland on Saturday afternoon. Rockland was originally scheduled to take on Middleborough Thursday night. St. Mary’s had its game against Cardinal Spellman cancelled, but found a Saturday matchup against Cathedral.
Billerica is still looking for an opponent after Dracut was forced to cancel their Friday matchup. Millis is also looking for an opponent with Norton on pause.
The Mayflower League is beset by postponements and scheduling shifts, with Blue Hills traveling to West Bridgewater Thursday night instead of hosting Tri-County Regional on Friday afternoon. Diman, Old Colony, and Southeastern are among the programs forced to postpone games this week.
Nate Weitzer contributed to this story.