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For Holgorsen, a look says it all

MORGANTOWN - If Geno Smith were playing in the NFL for Dana Holgorsen, the two might never share a moment together off the field. There would really be no reason to.

That's because in the NFL, quarterbacks have radio receivers in their helmets tuned directly to the coach on the sideline calling the plays. Quarterbacks need only understand English in general, not their coaches specifically.

Colleges have to rely on more primitive methods to communicate information. They use hand signals, signs, decoys and the like.

Holgorsen uses a few of those methods, too. But he also throws in a twist.

He stares. And sometimes he makes faces.

"It's a whole bunch of non-verbal communication through signals, through body language, through stares,'' Holgorsen said. "I can get aggravated and if I'm aggravated, [Smith] probably needs to figure out why I'm aggravated.''

Holgorsen, whose No. 22 West Virginia football team hosts Bowling Green on Saturday, has been using his system of relaying information to his quarterbacks for years. And just as has his offensive scheme has changed, those methods of communication have changed and been refined at every stop.

They also change from one quarterback to the next. That's where getting to know each other comes in.

"You've got to know him,'' Smith said. "We spend a lot of time with one another, even if he's not talking about football. We all just hang out.''

Transferring information from the sidelines to the field has evolved greatly over the years. In the NFL, traditional hand signals were never really that big because the thought was that pro offenses were too complex to reduce them to non-verbal signs. So Paul Brown started using messenger guards in the 1950s, the first radio receivers were tried shortly thereafter - and usually failed because opponents intercepted them - hand signals eventually became a bit more common and ultimately the helmet receivers were perfected.

In college football, though, until 1967 it was actually illegal to coach from the sidelines. When it was made legal, hand signals began and became more and more complex. Teams for years have accused others of stealing signals. So more and more teams now attempt to disguise their intent and their signals in more creative and often complex ways.

Holgorsen is apparently of the school that simpler is better, so he just gets to know his quarterback as well as he can and eventually less has to be said. Or signaled.

"It's not something you can just take a class on,'' Holgorsen said. "It's a lot like the non-verbal communication that exists between [Smith] and Stedman [Bailey] and Ivan [McCartney], due to the fact that they've been playing together for a long time - just the whole nod, 'Yes, I get it. I know what you mean.' And they go do it.

"If I make it cut-and-dried, plain as day, then everybody in the stands can figure out what the play is. We've got a lot of ways of communicating, a lot of different signals, and that's really just between me and him and nobody else.''

It has to happen fast, too. Holgorsen's last three quarterbacks - Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and Smith - didn't even know him until eight or nine months before they played their first game.

"You just have to know him,'' Smith said. "And from just practicing hundreds of times and him yelling at me and knowing what he wants and expects of me, I can tell how he's feeling and what he wants me to do.''

And that takes time, which is why Holgorsen signals to him every day, even in practice when the job could be done by someone else just to allow practice to run more efficiently or to allow Holgorsen to look elsewhere.

"It's the same way every day, to where sometimes I do something different and he won't understand it,'' Holgorsen said. "Which means he just sits and stares. And then we do it again and he goes, 'Oh yeah, yeah. I got it.'"

Smith says the communication begins as soon as one play ends, usually right up until Smith begins putting the next play in motion. Even then, sometimes he will stop and look over at Holgorsen.

"A lot [happens],'' Smith said. "It's usually a lot of signals, a lot of communication, a lot of hand gestures and the faces he makes.

"It's not hard. That's the key to it. It's simple. He makes it simple. It's something that's been going on for 10 years and it always works.''

The Holgorsen-Smith communication is not perfect, yet, but Holgorsen isn't concerned.

"We'll get there,'' Holgorsen said. "We'll be better at it this week than we were last week.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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