Stealing hardly falls into the neat narrative of college sports as a part of the larger educational mission, but there’s plenty of it going on every Saturday in the fall on college campuses.
“We do things to change (our signals) all the time,” South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. “We talk about it, and I think everybody does because everybody is out there stealing signals.”
The subject first came up publicly for the Gamecocks this season after the Missouri game, when then-head coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged the Tigers might have known what was coming from their running game, which Spurrier said featured mainly the same two calls that day.
South Carolina has changed their signaling procedures since that time, interim head coach Shawn Elliott said.
“We’ve touched on that several times,” Elliott said. “Actually, (defensive co-coordinator) Jon Hoke and I had a conversation about his as well. So yes, we do have some concern. But I think everyone in the conference does that, (and) around the country.”
Sign stealing has been a hot topic in the Pac-12 this season after Oregon used five, eight-foot tall white screens to shield its signals during a 61-55 win over Arizona State two weeks ago. Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich said after the game that the screens were a reaction to Arizona State’s devotion to sign stealing.
It was a good thing Oregon hid those signals, too, Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said.
“Do we steal signals? Yeah, we do,” Graham said. “Do people steal our signals? Yeah, (they) do. We are definitely going by the rules. There’s not anything illegal about looking at somebody’s signals.”
UCLA coach Jim Mora declined even to use the word “stealing” to address the practice.
“That word is inaccurate, but (Arizona State) very good at taking advantage of teams that don’t try to hide their intentions or their signals,” Mora said. “I thought what Oregon did was awesome. It may have been extreme to some, but I thought it was great.”
Extreme is the name of game in college coaching, though. When South Carolina played at Texas A&M on Oct. 31, the Aggies coaches used a large white shield held over their signal-callers by a staffer to make sure no unwanted eyes saw their signs.
“I said, ‘What are they doing over there?’ Somebody said, ‘They’re hiding the signals.’ It’s like they’d built a shed out there because it was raining so much,” Elliott said. “There’s extremes you don’t have to go to, I don’t think. I think if you’ve got a good plan and multiple signal-callers, that you can disguise and get away with it.”
The Gamecocks have two signal callers – graduate assistant Seth Strickland and fourth-string quarterback Michael Scarnecchia – using hand signals to convey their play calls from the sideline during games. South Carolina has yet to use anything to shield its signalers this season.
“Paranoia in football exists … heavily,” Mangus said. “We don’t need six-foot canopies over people or anything like that. If you go pretty fast, you don’t have to worry about all that stuff.”
The responsibility for keeping signals secure falls on the signaler rather than the opponent, most coaches agree.
“Absolutely, it is an accepted part of the game,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The onus falls on the guys doing the signaling. It is not anyone else’s job to look the other way. It is the job of the team doing signals to have signals complex enough that they can’t be picked off.”