When Maryland takes on Auburn in the Music City Bowl on Saturday, it’ll break out some fresh technology. Fresh to college football, that is.
The Terps will have one-way helmet communication abilities that allow coaches to speak directly to designated players on the field — something has been available to NFL teams for nearly three decades but is still in its experimental stages at the college level. Both teams’ sidelines will also be equipped with electronic tablets that allow for instant film review.
There will be a few key differences between the NFL’s communications system and Maryland’s. The NFL permits helmet speakers for only one player on each side of the ball, but Maryland plans to have two players on both offense and defense outfitted with speakers, plus another on special teams. The plan, according to head coach Mike Locksley, is to make the technology available to the Terps’ quarterbacks, a member of the secondary, a linebacker and also the personal protector on punts.
Professional rules also mandate that in-helmet speakers be shut off when 15 seconds remain on the play clock. The NCAA Rules Committee didn’t set forth a list of usage guidelines for the experimental technology when it handed Maryland and Auburn a waiver to try it out, meaning the teams had to come to an agreement about how it will work. Last Tuesday, Locksley was still unsure if there would be a cut-off time for helmet communication.
“I think it’s easier, just better as far as communication-wise, you know, just getting calls and stuff like that,” Maryland linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II said. “So definitely something that I like. Hopefully we can keep that and continue to use it.”
In the wake of the scandal surrounding Michigan’s sign-stealing operation, voices to implement these technologies across college football have grown louder. Currently, most teams relay their plays from the sideline by utilizing disguised body language and placards that players on the field can decode with a quick glance.
In-helmet communication can streamline the process of calling plays, allowing for quicker relays from the playbook to the line of scrimmage. It allows teams to increase tempo while limiting the ability of opponents to anticipate plays before they’re run. However, the Terps have still had to work out some kinks. Locksley expressed the importance of keeping communications succinct, as coaches sometimes instinctually relay too much information for players to quickly absorb.
“For us, it’s important to see how this works, because if we’re moving toward it I want to make sure we’ve had an opportunity to practice it, to use it and have a feel so I can make an educated decision when it comes time to my opinion is asked what I think about using technology in games,” Locksley said.
Auburn will not use the communication technology but will take advantage of the tablets. In the NFL, quarterbacks are often seen plopping themselves down on the bench and instantly breaking down footage of the most recent drive with their coaches. On Saturday, the Terps and Tigers will have that opportunity.
“Our coaches on the sideline will hopefully be able to see things,” Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said. “I do hope that’s something that’s permanent, for sure. I don’t know why anyone would be against that, unless it’s a cost issue for certain conferences.”
Many FBS schools, especially those in money-printing conferences like the Big Ten and SEC, would be able to foot the bill for both in-helmet communication and tablets without much thought. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the case for all college football teams, especially those at the FCS and non-Division I levels. The dollars required to implement communications technology in helmets and purchase electronic tablets could be prohibitive to some.
According to Ross Dellenger of Yahoo Sports, Maryland rented six helmet communication sets for $5,000. Dellenger also reported that the Music City Bowl is one of 14 bowl games experimenting with helmet communication or tablets this year.
“We both agreed to utilize some of this stuff,” Locksley said. “I think we’ll transition maybe next season into it.”