More than 14 stories above the field at Ohio Stadium, Tom Herman wedges a wad of Kodiak the size of a dumpling in his lower lip. He cracks his neck, left, then right. Herman, Ohio State's offensive coordinator, shoehorns himself into the far left seat of the coach's box, one of 14 polo-shirted Buckeyes staffers in a booth hermetically sealed from the keg-stand debauchery and tribal passion pulsing through the rest of the ancient Horseshoe.
It's been 280 days since the last snap of Ohio State's undefeated 2012 season, and now the Buckeyes are on the field waiting to start their '13 campaign against Buffalo. Hundreds of hours of practice, film study and game planning have built up enough anticipation that Herman's right foot thumps the ground as if he's playing bass drum for Iron Maiden.
In front of Herman sits a bottle of 5-hour Energy, a perspiring can of Diet Coke and five different-color pens—green, yellow, orange, pink and red. As the clock melts toward kickoff, Herman wrestles the black headset over his right ear and cuts through the nervous tension by saying, "We talking on a walkie-talkie here? O.K., here we go."
September 30, 2013
With that the 2013 Ohio State football season crackles to life, and what flows through those headphones over the course of the afternoon is the secret sound track of college football, from the details of the team's hyper-tempo, no-huddle spread offense to the overcaffeinated, adrenaline-fueled intensity of game day.
Listening in is like eavesdropping on a program's family dinner—spoken in mostly undecipherable jargon—complete with cursing, elation and the relentless tension of coach Urban Meyer asking for more. "It's not a fun three hours," says director of football operations Brian Voltolini, who shadows Meyer on the field. "You can't take anything personal that happens on game day. If you do, you're done."
In the week leading up to kickoff, OSU's quarterback meetings include quotes from Anchorman, lyrics from the Beastie Boys and Herman speaking four different languages—English, Arabic, Spanish and French. There's even a joke of the day. A sample, from recruiting assistant Derek Chang: "Why did Snoop Dogg buy an umbrella?" Chang asks. "Fo' drizzle." (Eh, not bad.)
During these meetings plays sprawl across grease boards and overhead slides. On the practice field they are shaped to a fine point with the hammer of repetition. "The 100,000 people here, they have no idea how much goes into a game," Ohio State tight ends coach Tim Hinton says. "No. Idea."
The Buckeyes take the ball for the first time, and all the scheming and plotting and work come to life as Herman leans forward and says calmly into the headset, "Rooster 31 Revere, Rooster 31 Revere, Rooster 31 Revere."
Buffalo is facing a third-and-eight on its second drive of the first quarter when Meyer flips over from the defensive headset channel to the offensive one, "Tom, I want to be real aggressive on this drive."
Herman plans to "jet to inferno," meaning he's running no-huddle (jet) and speeding up as fast as possible. He rattles off his planned second-drive script. His hurry-up calls will include four passes in five plays. The drive culminates with "Jet Pop 93," a crisply timed seven-yard wheel route from Braxton Miller to Chris Fields, staking Ohio State to a 16--0 lead. (All play names have been changed to protect the secrecy of OSU's playbook.)
"Hey 5," Herman says to Miller when he returns to the sideline and gets on the headset. "Good drive, bud. Great job being patient."
Ohio State's first two drives epitomize the headset harmony between head coach and coordinator. Meyer delivers a macro message and Herman executes concise play calls under those guidelines. In its first two possessions, Ohio State totals a dizzying nine plays and 124 yards in 2:40, a reflection of an offense growing up in its second year.
"Before it was like Braxton would say, 'Jet, jet, jet,' and have to stop and say, 'Oh, that's the formation?' " says center Corey Linsley. "Now it's smooth, the liquidity of the whole thing."
Meyer never ran a no-huddle, up-tempo offense before hiring Herman last season. Herman, 38, comes from the new school of offensive coordinators, a la Chip Kelly, whose intellect (Herman's a Mensa member) trumps his playing credentials (All-Conference at Ca Lutheran).
A no-huddle spread is a symphony of explosive movements that begin when the whistle is blows dead the previous play. The linemen hustle to the line with their heads down, and the skill players sprint to the ball while looking at three color-coded signalers wildly pantomiming on the sideline. Miller barks a series of numbers to the linemen to indicate the play, and the snap can come in a one-word cadence—"Jump! Jump! Jump!"
Herman goes into every game with an A-list of 40 plays, a B-list of 20 and a C-list of 24. The A-list plays are polished, having been practiced between 100 and 300 times. The B-list plays are less refined, but still familiar. The C-list are works in progress, little-practiced plays only to be called if needed.
Meyer manages the game, thinking two to three plays ahead at all times. Herman focuses on what he'd like to call offensively on second down before the snap on first down. Herman considers:
"What am I going to call if we get an explosive play here?"
"What am I going to call if we have a bad or negative play?"
"What am I going to call if it's a four- or five-yard gain?"
There are four headset "channels" at Ohio State—Offense A and B, Defense A and B. Meyer pops back and forth between Offense A and Defense A. On a second-and-long for the opponent, he'll flip to Herman and ask for the first three plays for the next drive. Or he'll offer predrive advice like, "Take a shot here, Tom."
When Ohio State scores on its first three drives, Meyer thinks to himself about when to send in the backups. He instructs Herman to hide certain formations, lest they be exposed to future opponents. "I would not show Sneaky today," Meyer says.
Meyer inherited a team that ranked 107th in offense in 2011. It improved to 47th in his first year, increasing its average production by more than 100 yards per game. Heading into its showdown with Wisconsin on Saturday, Ohio State is 15th, an impressive leap, led by backup Kenny Guiton who took over after Miller sprained his left MCL early in the second game. (Miller is expected to play against Wisconsin.)
Why all the success? "You can move fast," says Guiton, "when everyone knows what they're doing."
Herman's foot pounds even faster. After the great start, the Buckeyes' O has begun to falter, confounded by a Buffalo defense that's dropping eight men into coverage.
Tailback Jordan Hall fails to convert a fourth-and-one on the opening drive of the quarter. Precocious freshman Dontre Wilson, a Percy Harvin--type hybrid whom the coaches value so much that they put together a special 14-play package for him, fumbles on the next drive. Miller follows that with a pick-six on a blind screen that Buffalo's Khalil Mack returns 45 yards for a score to cut OSU's lead to 23--13.
"That's three in a row, boys," Meyer shouts. "Let's go. We need to start blocking these guys."
After the game, Miller will look despondent about the interception. "That one will haunt me, man," he says. Miller is a paradoxical superstar, an introvert who needs to lead, a competitor who isn't naturally vocal and a straightforward kid whose moods and whims are endlessly psychoanalyzed. When Miller practices with verve, engages with his teammates and focuses, the team follows. "If I come in lazy," he says, "the whole team's vibe isn't there."
Miller didn't click with Herman last season, chafing at everything from the coach's "corny" jokes to the way he held the quarterback responsible for any offensive issues. "When he first got here," Miller says of Herman, "I didn't really trust him."
Like any good coordinator, Herman adjusted. He calls the task of coaching Miller "the most challenging of my career," because of Miller's contradictory mix of talent and aloofness, each magnified by his position as the quarterback at Ohio State. Herman took a trip to the Dayton area last December to visit Miller. He also spoke with his high school coach and his father about connecting with Braxton.
A few months later, Miller mentioned to Herman that he'd become a father in the summer of 2012. No coach or staff member knew that. Herman and his wife, Michelle, took a trip to meet Miller's son, Landon. Miller appreciated the effort.
After the trip, Herman changed the routine, cutting the length of meetings and switching meeting locations from his office to the offensive staff room, which has brighter lights and floor-to-ceiling dry erase boards. He introduced the joke of the day.
A few minutes before kickoff, Herman kissed Miller on the cheek and told him how proud he was of him. Much like OSU's offense this season, Miller and Herman are showing progress, but there's work to be done. "We're in a better place now than we've ever been," says Herman. "Is it where I'd like it to be? Probably not."
As the quarter progresses Buffalo continues to rush only three defenders, and Ohio State continues to struggle. Meyer comes on the headset: "I've never got my face kicked in by drop eight like this."
"Can everyone shut up?!" Herman yells.
There are two types of conversations on the offensive headsets. When Ohio State has the ball, Herman and Meyer are the only coaches allowed to speak. Herman talks roughly two thirds of the time, and half of his remarks are yelled play calls—"Apple Flex 101, APPLE FLEX 101!!!" Meyer intermittently asks the booth for observations: "Everything covered on that, Tom?"
When Buffalo has the ball, the raucous family-dinner conversations occur. After one score, Herman tries to speak with Miller on the sideline but too many voices are converging, which is why he yells "shut up." Otherwise the chatter includes quick bursts of jargon—"If we run that again, try odd not stack"—and discussions about specific plays as if they're people with their own personalities. Hinton chirps, "They can't cover Quad Dig." Meyer suggests a play for the next series, "Shrimp is good," he offers. Herman relays strategic ramblings, "Here's what they're doing, they're bringing the four-technique to the boundary and playing quarters. They're not getting the five-technique to the boundary."
From the bench Miller provides his own analysis. "The three-technique made the play. That's the read key," he says. Herman talks situational nuance with his quarterback—"In three-down, if the free safety blitzes, then the X is your throw"—and makes adjustments, "Forget the fake and take your drop," he insists.
With Ohio State leading 30--20 early in the third quarter, Mack sacks Miller 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage and forces a fumble. Buffalo recovers at the OSU two-yard line and the only sound in the coach's box is the din of Buffalo's radio announcer screaming in an adjacent booth.
But the threat disappears when a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Mack brings the play back. Instead of first-and-goal for Buffalo, it's first-and-10 for OSU on its 37. Two plays later the magnitude of the sequence hits Meyer. He speaks slowly and, to no one in particular, says, "OH. MY. GOD!"
Meyer's voice on the headset is part motivator of players and coaches, part strategist and part color commentator. But he's so wrapped up in the moment that by the time the game is over, he can't remember any of it. As he sat at his locker after the game and crushed two hot dogs lathered in yellow mustard, he listened as the things he said on the headset were read back to him, wincing with surprise.
"Our tight ends are getting dominated."
"You've got 'em tired. Go TOM! GO! GO!"
"We had the X butt naked on that one."
All week long, Meyer preached to his team that he wouldn't pity Buffalo (4--8 in 2012). "I didn't schedule this game," he insisted. "I'm not going to feel bad for them."
But after Mack nearly puts the game in doubt, Meyer's pleas for a high tempo are quieted. He focuses on simply winning, draining the life out of the fourth quarter.
"Where's your best back?" Meyer asks Herman. "Let's pound 'em. It's Buffalo."
On most plays, once the ball is snapped, Herman's eyes glare unblinking at the field. There's enough information in front of him on scripts, play sheets and call breakdowns to write a thesis project. On third and three-to-six, for example, there's a list of seven plays the Buckeyes could use. There's a side column for the 14 plays that Wilson, the precocious freshman, is comfortable running. There's a column dedicated for plays to "take a shot."
A majority of the rainbow colored markers in front Herman sit unopened, although he does occasionally jot thoughts in a notebook. The 5-hour Energy also remains unopened, but Herman swigs the Diet Coke between spitting streaks of tobacco into his dip cup. There's an occasional bark into the headset—"Where's Miller?"—but for the most part he's locked in, eyes focused forward and emotions channeled into his thumping foot, which changes intermittently from right to left, though never both.
After the game Meyer realizes that he got too conservative and essentially apologizes, as Mack's sack seemed to rattle Meyer's aggression. "You know what I did? I quit pushing and quit grinding," he tells the team. "That's my fault. I've got to get better. I'm going to take the hit for this one."
The slow pace and just four second-half possessions provided a reprieve for the hardest working part of the play-calling operation—the signalers, who stand on the sideline in purple, orange and green shirts. When Herman barks a play call into the headset, it doesn't go directly into Miller's helmet. Instead, the calls are marionette strings, prompting OSU's three student signalers on the sideline to flap their arms puppetlike—brightly colored street mimes flailing awkwardly on the field.
One of the three is the live signaler, something that can be switched if there's any suspicion the opposition is stealing signs. The OSU operation is so refined that for most practices Herman wears a headset, relaying plays to managers wearing purple, orange and green pinnies.
In a college sports world that feels increasingly less quaint by the hour, there's something refreshing about such a key part of the OSU offensive operation being so quintessentially collegiate. Drew Mehringer, a 25-year-old graduate assistant, is the only one of the three who gets paid. And that's only $24,000 per year, which comes with space in a GA office resembling an electrical closet that he and fellow GA Parker Fleming affectionately refer to as "The G Spot."
The other two signalers, Matt Merritt, 25, and Quinn Tempel, 22, are essentially unpaid interns, officially classified as managers. Tempel is still an undergraduate, which means that one of the staff members signaling in plays for Ohio State this season lives in an off-campus house with a Natural Light beer sign that says, WELCOME BACK STUDENTS.
As OSU bleeds the final seconds off the clock of a 40--20 win, Meyer the master motivator adds one final piece of color commentary. "Well, we got outcoached today."
Herman sets down the headset and takes an elevator filled with OSU coaches to the stadium's concourse level. He walks out against the flow of the crowd leaving the stadium, completely unrecognized, still a little dazed as the adrenaline drains from his body. From managers to GAs to coordinators, everyone will be on edge next week. Just the way Meyer likes it. "When there's urgency, that's when production increases," Meyer says. "When there's lack of urgency, there's complacency, and that's terrible."
No doubt, the Buckeyes will stay well-caffeinated—and on edge—until the next family dinner.
"It's not a fun three hours," says Voltolini, director of operations.
There are discussions about plays as if they're people.
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