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The art of play-calling

It's a week before the season, and Kevin Steele sits at the head of a narrow table in a half-lit, windowless room.

The Clemson defensive coordinator alternates between rewinding and fast-forwarding video of an upcoming opponent, a team Steele requests not be identified. Call it "Team X," he said.

Steele is asked how many hours per week he spends in this room studying opponents' probabilities, forming psychological profiles of play-callers.

Steele wheels around in his swivel chair and begins totaling the hours on one of the meeting room walls, which are surfaces of magnetic dry-erase board. Every area of the room, save the floor and ceiling, is covered with scribbling or magnet labels of play calls and players. Steele finds an empty space, and his marker squeaks out a total of 70 hours.

In this room located at Memorial Stadium, Steele has prepared for four types of offenses in four weeks this season: Troy's run-and-shoot, Wofford's triple-option, Auburn's up-tempo misdirection and now Florida State's pro-style offense, which Clemson will see Saturday.

Some Sunday-morning quarterbacks believe they can more wisely choose plays, but Steele is sure they cannot. Steele pauses the video and asks the reporter if he is ready to learn the art of play-calling.

Knowing the probabilities

Graduate assistant Wesley Goodwin and his desktop computer occupy a small corner desk in the video room.

Goodwin works a week ahead of Steele, editing video of opponents two weeks ahead on the schedule. Goodwin compiles every imaginable scenario on DVDs, categorized by down-and-distance, field position, formation and personnel groups. He also produces a three-ring binder as thick as a metropolitan phonebook, containing statistical probabilities for all situations.

Steele cannot page through a binder of probabilities on Saturdays when he has 12 seconds to make a call. Tendencies must be memorized. The cram session begins each Sunday.

"I don't have a photographic memory," Steele said. "I think it's more training than intelligence. You pour enough sand in a hole, it has to fill up. I guess there are guys that are smart enough they can go home at 6 p.m. I can't. I have to keep watching it over and over and over."

The coordinator clicks play, and the demonstration begins.

First-and-10 at the 20:

The opening kick sails through the end zone, so Steele knows the down-and-distance and field position. The calculations start.

"What are his tendencies in the middle of the field? What are his tendencies on the first play of the game," Steele said. "Is he a scripter? What does he do when he does script? Is he a shot taker? Yes. But they also have a huge tendency to run the ball or throw a safe pass."

Steele waits for the offense to arrive on the field. Player formations are linked to tendencies, along with down-and-distance and field position.

Steele knows this personnel, or player grouping, well: three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back. When the running back is to the right of the quarterback in the shotgun formation, the play is 80 percent run. But before the snap, the running back shifts from the right to the left.

"At the end of the day, you can call the most perfect call," Steele said, "but if players don't execute and have knowledge, it's not any good." A short pass is completed for 7 yards.

Second-and-3 at the 27:

Team X now subs in "21 personnel," meaning two running backs and one tight end. The personnel package indicates a running play, but Steele sees the backs are fullbacks: they are brought in to pass protect.

"I know they treat second-and-short as a waste down, meaning they are going to take a shot," Steele said. "When I see (21 personnel), I know they are getting ready to take a shot. ... But this is max protect. You don't want to blitz a max protect, because if they are keeping them in, you ain't got enough to bring, so you cover."

The pass falls incomplete 15 yards downfield.

Third-and-3 at the 27:

This is a conservative team on its side of the field. "Anything inside the 35, they don't take shots - they throw screens and slants," Steele said.

Playing the man

At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Steele assigns his assistants a task, like studying the opponent's goal-line plays. They reconvene at 9:30 p.m. For the next six hours, Steele chronologically watches a season of his opponent's games to acquire a feel for the opposing play-caller's cadence and temperament.

Steele typically trusts the numbers. He spends so much time absorbing them he sleeps only four hours each night. But sometimes Steele gets a gut feeling telling him to ignore probability; somewhere along the way, Steele stored in his memory a situation when this play-caller went against probabilities.

"I never battle a gut feeling," he said. "An example would be one of the most respected guys I ever called a game against, (former Maryland coach) Ralph Friedgen. I've watched him enough, I know his personality. It doesn't matter what the numbers say in this situation, he is getting ready to break his tendencies. People think it is just Xs and Os, but you have to get inside the opposing play-caller's head."

The surprise attack

Sometimes all the preparation, all the percentages are worthless.

Take Clemson's game at Boston College last season.

After five plays it was evident the Eagles were throwing Clemson a game-day curveball: they had self-scouted and gone away from their tendencies.

"They broke every tendency," Steele said. "Everything we had in our bank was void."

Steele adjusted on the fly, but his ability to teach on the sideline was made difficult as the Clemson offense was unable to stay on the field. Clemson allowed 13 points in a loss.

The poker game

One reason Steele walks the sideline during games is to study opposing coordinators. On the field he can better read body language, better sense his adversary's temperament.

"There's one particular play-caller in the ACC who doesn't take risks when he has you rolling. He takes risks when you are stoning him," Steele said. "When he gets frustrated, he does something out of the norm. You kind of watch on the sideline, and when you start seeing this (Steele throws his arms down in frustration) you know he is getting ready to do something wild."

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