The whistle has barely stopped echoing following a Polk County play when head football coach Dustin Fry begins looking at the large card always in his hands.
As he peruses the sheet, he shouts out a signal indicating the formation and personnel that the Wolverines are going to use for their next snap. He then gives quarterback Lawson Carter another signal, usually a color-number combination, that corresponds to a play on his wristband.
The entire process lasts only a few seconds, hopefully, as the play clock will be ticking down. Carter returns to the huddle, gives the play to the rest of the offense, then hurries the team to the line of scrimmage.
It’s a routine that every football team in America follows to some degree. For Fry, play calling and building a game plan represents hours of work each week stacked upon years of knowledge. His roots in play calling and game planning date back to his time at Clemson as a player and coach with Chad Morris, then the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.
“He was the first guy I learned to game plan under and what the week entails with how certain staff members would handle certain things, how you broke the week down, how you start with film study, how you start the week with first down runs and you can always do goal line, sometimes early because it’s very similar defensive lines,” Fry said.
“It’s really just how you can compartmentalize the game more than anything. Because if you don’t understand that, you just think, they have a lot of plays and they just run plays. You really do compartmentalize the game to situations as best you can. You always have to adapt on the fly, but you try to game plan based on occurrences that have happened in the past.”
Learning those tendencies comes from film study, and that’s where the Polk County coaching staff typically begins its game-week preparation. When Fry coached at the college level, staffs would typically chart the previous six games for an opponent and developed detailed breakdown and tendency charts. But that was possible thanks to the large staffs that most colleges employ; at Polk County, with a coaching staff of five, the Sunday film breakdown is a much more compact effort.
That information in hand, Fry and staff begin thinking about the plays they want to practice and use in the week ahead.
“You try to play the game a little bit before the game, though you don’t want to get too locked into things and not adjust,” he said. “But that helps with calling the game.”
The call sheet that Fry carries on Friday nights has plays grouped into various situations. There’s a section for third-down calls, second-and-medium-and-long calls and so on. Fry often scripts a block of nine plays he wants to run early in the game if conditions allow.
But that information isn’t put together at the first weekly meeting of Polk County’s coaching staff.
“Sunday is just the start of the initial game plan,” Fry said. “It’s really just jotting notes, this formation would be good, this look would be good, running to this side could be good. How do we want to attack? What part of the field is the soft spot in the passing game?
“Then when I come in on Monday, I have even more ideas because I’ve thought about it overnight. Monday is not huge in that we have to have everything installed. Tuesday morning is where I’ll come in and feel, all right, I really like this.”
By the time the Wolverines have finished with Wednesday’s practice in a game week, they’ve run through short-yardage plays, goal-line plays, play-action passes – largely everything that can possibly be used on Friday night. And that’s when Fry can begin to actually put together his plan of attack.
“I put my call sheet together based on (the first three practices) because the worst thing you can do is run plays that you never practiced,” he said. “We have several carryovers that guys know it’s a staple and we may not run it in skill or you may run it once or walk through it, but it’s been in since day one of spring.
“The stuff that’s in and out of the game plan, I don’t like to just run it if we haven’t worked on it.”
On Thursday morning, call sheet complete, Fry then puts together the wristbands for Carter and others that contain the plays and codes. He also will take time to read through all the plays on the sheet with someone to make certain everything matches.
On Friday morning, Fry selects his block of nine starter plays, then it’s time to print and laminate the call sheet. Polk will often walk through those nine plays at some point Friday afternoon.
The work from Sunday to Friday in developing the game plan is handled by the coaching staff, but there are assignments for players as well. Fry often gives players a sheet of six boxes, each box devoted to a play that will be run that week.
“A lot of times those aren’t new,” he said. “It just may be a new wrinkle of how we’re running it or window dressing or hey, we’re going to run it out of this formation or we’re going to do it through this motion.
“A lot of times it’s just carryover for the (offensive) line. I don’t want to change a bunch of blocking schemes. The receivers probably get a new play or new wrinkle once a week, maybe twice earlier in the season.
“I’m at a place now where I feel like we have enough stuff in our offense that I can pull from and window dress or run the exact same play out of several different looks. Because of the way our formations are set up, I can call spread formation probably six or seven different ways, but have guys in different spots just by changing a verb or a word. We have a lot of good stuff, so let’s just keep pulling from there.”
Game nights begin and Fry will hope his nine plays produce early points. Sometimes game situations mean he has to stray from those nine plays, but he always returns to them at some point each evening. “Those were plays I liked early on, let’s come back to them,” he said.
And, hoepfully, those plays and the others on the sheet will produce yardage, points and a Polk County win.
“I enjoy the coaching and getting kids better,” Fry said. “But I enjoy the strategy and game planning. We got to do this in college, but it was in between recruiting phone calls and staff meetings and compliance meetings. And then it was 10:30 at night.
“This is definitely a part I enjoy and enjoy doing the implementation of it. And then when it works, that’s really the joy in it.”