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Penn State Football: With Big Names To Replace, Don't Forget Signal Guru Billy Fessler

by on April 04, 2018 8:30 PM

It takes a lot -quite a lot actually- for Penn State football practice to stop on a dime. Wind doesn't do it, rain certainly doesn't. Injuries are usually tended to on the sideline. The machine doesn't stop for just anything.

Taking a picture of the play signalers though?

That'll do it.

"You know better than that." James Franklin belted from across the practice field, nearly three years ago. Stopping a play as he scowled at, well, me.

And I did know better, albeit it hadn't occurred to me at the time. Although my intentions were not to sell the Nittany Lions' secrets to that week's opponent, it goes to show how important those signals are. It's kind of funny in a way that something so secretive happens right in open, but without the enigma machine to crack it, the guesses aren't worth much unless you start to get a few words and letters along the way.

"Hey look, they're waving their arms around." An opposing player might say.

"Yep." His coach would respond. Even if he knew what the signals meant, he'd have to be able to make that intelligence actionable, signaling in that info to his defense. Good luck pulling that off before the snap.

Nevertheless, point taken. And after a brief post-practice discussion and a handshake, no hard feelings and no more pictures.

Entering the 2018-19 season there is a small but important change to be made on Penn State's sideline. Billy Fessler, the author of those signals for the past two seasons, is gone.

It's an incredible process too to create that unspoken language. Under former offensive coordinator John Donovan, the signals, over 100 of them, were given to players to learn. Forget just having to learn the plays, imagine having to learn the sign language that told you which one to run.  Then learn variations, then translate it all as you run down the field.

In the Joe Moorhead era things changed. Fessler and a small group of players were tasked with creating the signals themselves, again over 100, all on their own.

"It's easier to learn when you come up with them on your own." Fessler said that season. Don't forget the weekly tweaks to throw opponents off the scent. But two years into it everything became second nature. 

"The coaches created some of them," former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said at the time. "But really we wanted to give the ownership to the players. Ultimately we don't have to know them as coaches, we stand there and call the play and then they call in the signals. So what we let the quarterbacks do is get together and the signals that we used at Fordham that they liked we used, but they had complete creative license over them."

The entire signaling process itself depends on the team. Generally no-huddle teams use multiple players to signal to different position groups to get the play, tags and assignments in that much faster. That's half the reason those guys are wearing bright colored hats and oven mitts. Those big signboards with funny pictures? Sometimes it's play, sometimes it says which direction to run the play, sometimes it says which signaler to look at, sometimes it's just a decoy.

Confusing? A bit. And that's only a general summation, Penn State's actual methods? Probably its own variation of rules and guidelines. None of this is of course groundbreaking news to people spending time around football, but it's an often forgotten and often very creative role.

Whatever the case Penn State will have to find a new Fessler this season to help author those calls.

"I think we talk all the time about different roles on our time and how each role is critical and Billy was a guy who took his role on the team very serious," James Franklin said after practice on Wednesday. "He coached the younger guys like sometimes the third quarterback in the NFL is coaching the rookie. I think that was how Billy has been."

"We have to find out who that's going to be, whether it's (Michael) Shuster, or (Sean) Clifford or (Jake) Zembiec or some of the freshmen coming in. It could be some of the receivers, a (Tyler) Shoop or something like that, the managers have done a good job at it as well. It's a critical role."

Whoever ends up doing it though, don't take his picture.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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