Danger sign: How will Ohio State account for Clemson's signal-stealing reputation?

With the tenor of the chatter of Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal game with Clemson already approaching that of a rivalry game, Buckeye coach Ryan Day nudged the rhetoric somewhere between salty and animosity this week.

In an otherwise perfunctory news conference on Monday, Day hinted at Clemson’s long-standing reputation for stealing sideline signals. There’s nothing technically illegal about stealing signs from the sideline, but Clemson has become so prolific at it that it has become part of the program’s aura.

Day’s comments nudged right up to the edge of mentioning aloud Clemson’s reputation, leaving specifics unspoken but his message resonating quite clear.

“Seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they’re running, each play,” Day said of Clemson DC Brent Venables. “Seems to call the right defense into that play a lot. Why that is, I don’t really know. But I can tell you he’s been doing it for a really long time.”

Day would know. He went up against Venables and Clemson as the offensive coordinator at Boston College in 2013 and 2014 and again in the College Football Playoff last season. And similar gripes about Clemson’s intricate defensive sign-stealing operation have echoed around the ACC through that time.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Compounding the issue for Ohio State heading into the Sugar Bowl on Friday is that a former graduate assistant, Chandler Whitmer, left Ohio State after last season to become an offensive assistant at Clemson.

Whitmer worked with the offensive line last season at OSU and left for a chance to work with Clemson’s quarterbacks. But his departure meant someone with an intricate knowledge of the playbook and signals would be heading to a competitor.

So how significant to the actual game is Clemson’s ability to swipe and communicate signs? A lot, according to multiple coaches and assistants that Clemson plays regularly who spoke anonymously to Yahoo Sports. One coach termed it this way: “They are incredible at it. When you play them, it’s not an even playing field, they have so many [analysts] who are able to do that.”

When you are watching Clemson’s defense against Ohio State on Friday, notice how all 11 defenders are facing Venables until the moment before the snap. Opposing coaches say that Clemson will steal your sign and then Venables will signal it with a counter call in the moments before the snap. One of the tells of Clemson’s approach with this, according to opposing coaches, is that Venables is the only one signaling in the Tigers’ defensive plays. That means he’s sending them so late, and the coaches assume in reaction to what they’ve swiped, that Clemson’s defensive coaches don’t even appear to worry about anyone stealing their signals.

“If they don’t have a plan for Clemson’s signal stealers, then Clemson is going to know every play,” said one of the coaches. “They should be in the KGB stealing communications, they’re that good.”

So what can teams do to combat Clemson’s shadow signal world? Coaches point to the teams that have had success against them recently, a short list considering that Clemson won 36 straight regular season games until Notre Dame beat them in double-overtime this season.

Syracuse brings an ability to play with hyper-tempo, which can neutralize the effectiveness of Clemson’s sign-stealing operation. When Pitt had success against Clemson during Matt Canada’s season as offensive coordinator there, the Panthers used dynamic shifts and motions prior to the snap to keep Clemson’s defense off balance. They delivered the only loss of Clemson’s 2016 national title season, 43-42.

“Playing them, you have to go super fast or super slow,” said a coordinator who has faced Venables’ defense frequently over the years. “You need to either sugar huddle, have a wide receiver run the plays in every down like an option team or play with so much tempo that they have to get the call in immediately so they can’t get lined up.”

Clemson’s ability to pilfer had long been grumbled about throughout the ACC corridor and by bitter opposing assistants over beers at the AFCA Football Convention. The practice has occasionally poked into the mainstream, including an story earlier this season heading into the Notre Dame game.

After Notre Dame’s double-overtime upset, Brian Kelly acknowledged that the sugar huddling was done to neutralize the sign swiping. Miami’s Rhett Lashlee mentioned it before Clemson’s game against Miami this season, saying the Tigers are “known well” for stealing signals.

Paranoia from sign stealing is suspected to have crept into a faux controversy where NC State coach Dave Doeren called out Clemson for having a laptop on the sideline. It turned out to be a student using it for social media, and the ACC took no action. (Coaches aren’t allowed to have access to computers during game.) But the public callout antagonized Dabo Swinney’s staff enough that they authored an inspired troll of Doeren with a laptop placard on the sideline the next year.

What’s obvious from speaking to Clemson opponents is that the sign stealing is definitely in their heads. No one is quite sure how they do it. One coach pointed to multiple analysts with binders on the Clemson sideline. But are the signs swiped from up in the box? How are they communicated to Venables so he can call the defense? No one is certain.

There’s also suspicion as to how they actually get the signals in the first place, as televised copies of games only allow for a handful of signals to be swiped each week. “The thing to me that they do best is that they do it year-to-year,” said an opposing assistant. “They’ve developed a tradecraft and a systematic way to do it. And they are really, really good at it.”

Clemson certainly isn’t the only major college program with an army of analysts stealing signals. But it is good enough at it, has the resources to support it and the players to execute what’s pilfered that the reputation has manifested.

The unknown element of the stealing also nudges into a gray area that makes for compelling fodder. “To me, it’s like in baseball watching a third-base coach and trying to figure out a bunt or a steal sign,” said one of the opposing assistants. “To me, it’s the game within the game.”

And Day’s comments this week illuminated the acknowledgement of that game within the game. Ohio State scored on four of its first five drives in its semifinal loss to Clemson last season and failed to score on the next five drives.

Was it defensive adjustments? Was it stolen signs? Another opposing coach pointed out that Clemson’s analyst army allows them to diagnose plays by formation at a high rate, which could contribute to Venables’ knack for calling the right play.

We know Ohio State will be accounting for Clemson’s KGB skill set, as Day’s comments indicated. How much? We’ll know by the amount of sugar huddling or hyper tempo we see on Friday.

“I think there’s a part of you,” said one of the coaches, “if you’re going to adapt your gameplan so much and change signals so much that they’re so far inside your head they already won.”

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