CHAPEL HILL At first, Marquise Williams reacted with a bit of confusion when Keith Heckendorf, the quarterbacks coach at North Carolina, told him UNC would use a silent cadence against Delaware last Saturday.
“I was like, (there’s) not going to be too much noise in Kenan this Saturday if it’s raining,” Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback, said with a laugh earlier this week.
He was right about that. It rained throughout UNC’s 41-14 victory against Delaware, and the noise that a crowd of less than 40,000 produced didn’t provide too many distractions for the Tar Heels’ offense.
That will change, though, on Saturday at Georgia Tech, which is why the Tar Heels practiced using a silent cadence – or silent snap count – against Delaware, a lower-division Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
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When picked up by sensitive, high-tech microphones and aired to the audience of a television broadcast, a quarterback’s cadence can sound like a jumbled collection of gruff sounds – a short chant with changes in pitch and tone. On the field, though, those same noises tell the offense when to begin a play, and they can keep a defense guessing, too, as to when the snap is coming.
Why teams use silent cadences is nothing new. The practice has long been a part of football. The game at Georgia Tech, though, will be the first time this season that UNC will use it in what it expects will be a difficult road environment.
“It’s not just for any specific game,” Landon Turner, the senior offensive guard, said of using the silent cadence. “It’s for the whole season. Any road game, really, where things get loud (and) it becomes necessary, any time your quarterback can get drowned out – especially in the no-huddle offense and in a shotgun where he’s five yards or more back.”
There is no standard way of executing the silent snap count. Different teams have different ways of employing it.
Some treat the phrase “silent cadence” literally – as in there is no noise whatsoever from any player that signals when a play is about to begin. In those instances, the ball is snapped after a predetermined amount of time with the hope that everyone is correctly counting down to the moment.
Other teams, like UNC, rely on the center to verbally alert his fellow linemen that he’s snapping the ball. That increases the center’s responsibility, and also limits his role in other areas, like making adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive alignment.
“I can’t make some of the calls like I would be able to on our (fast) tempos,” UNC center Lucas Crowley said earlier this week. “Because my head’s in between my legs so I won’t be able to see the defense and see which way it’s moving.
“But during that time the guards will help me out and tell me where they are while my head’s down, and make my calls for me.”
UNC devoted “one or two practices” in the spring to understanding and executing the silent cadence, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. It did the same during preseason practice, and then spent the week before the Delaware game preparing to use it, as well.
There were some challenges during the Delaware game that emerged because of the use of the silent cadence, coach Larry Fedora said. For one, there was one false start penalty when receiver Ryan Switzer didn’t line up properly. There were also some issues – some perhaps caused by the rain – when it came to snapping the ball.
“What we did could have created more communication problems for our offense,” Fedora said. “But that’s what I’m saying – I thought they handled it really well, even though it may have slowed us down in a few things.
“It’s going to pay off for us because we will go to it in certain games and we’ll need to use it.”
Like the one at Georgia Tech, where UNC hasn’t won since 1997. UNC utilized a silent cadence almost exclusively during Fedora’s first two seasons, but its use now is usually reserved more for difficult road environments – like the ones the Tar Heels will likely experience this Saturday in Atlanta and later this season at Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
Going silent, too, isn’t the only way the Tar Heels attempt to minimize the effect of noise.
“The other thing we’ll do when it gets loud,” Kapilovic said, “is you’ll see sometimes we’ll hold hands on third downs. So what’s happening there is the guard is holding the tackle’s hand, so when that ball’s snapped he just lets go.
“Because I don’t want the tackles looking at the (snap) when I’ve got this guy coming off the edge.”
In times like that some of UNC’s linemen are most reliant on the sense of touch – and not sight or sound – to know when a play begins. After the snap, the play starts and then ends, and the precision presnap process starts over again.