By Sean Connor

Yes, backup quarterbacks Dan Nicholson and Zach Ullrich of the NIU football team are those guys.

You know, the two players on the sideline wearing headsets and waving their hands in the air at quarterback Phil Horvath.

And no, they’re not doing their version of the Navy S.E.A.L. signals.

Horvath said quarterbacks get to make up signals for plays, making it easier for the players to remember the calls.

NIU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Bond said the offensive play-calling system for the Huskies has become a tradition.

“It’s been at NIU way before I got here,” Bond said. “I came here and just fell in line. The [quarterbacks] like the signals and they have fun with it.”

Nicholson said the football team uses about 150 motions to call plays to Horvath.

“In any given week we might have to make up new signals,” Nicholson said. “This week we’ve got two or three new ones.”

Now, which quarterback Horvath actually takes the signals from is a whole different issue.

The team begins using the hand signals during double-session practices in August, Horvath said.

When the season starts Nicholson said the team decides before the game who Horvath will look to for a play. However, the redshirt freshman also said the Huskies may switch who the play-caller is at halftime depending on whether or not the team sees a needed change.

Ullrich said the quarterbacks may call in plays that use up to 12 words – the reason the two use so many hand motions.

“A lot of teams use this system,” Ullrich said. “Michigan is one who uses it. But you also see a lot of other teams that call in a number that is on a quarterbacks wrist band, and then he calls the play off of the wristband.”

Horvath said NIU tried mixing the wristband in with the hand signals two years ago, but the junior said it actually took more time to find the number on the wristband that contained almost 100 plays.

If anything, Nicholson and Ullrich said the system keeps their heads in the game.

“I don’t know if it was designed to keep us learning the plays,” Nicholson said. “But it works out like that.”

Ullrich said it’s a good way for the younger quarterbacks to learn because they’re constantly listening to the coaches through headsets.

“The terminology we use begins to make a lot more sense,” Ullrich said. “More than anything it really keeps us involved in the game.”

But why use hand signals? Why risk the other team picking them off?

In an age where offensive coordinators in the NFL can communicate directly to a quarterback’s helmet via radio, why chance the other team stealing a signal and knowing what play you’re going to run, or having a miscommunication?

“There aren’t any teams in college that use the [quarterback helmet radio],” Bond said. “We just use our headsets to tell our guys and they signal it in. It really depends on what the coach is comfortable with. Some coaches send the signal in themselves.”

Bond said he’s been with teams that send the play in with a sub as well, but there’s a good chance the sub can botch the play. But he also said it can be easier for a young quarterback to have a play run into him so he can concentrate on executing the play and not deciphering hand-signals.

In his time, NIU has not had a delay of game penalty or missed signal with the hand-signal system, Bond said.

Horvath and Ullrich called plays to former NIU quarterback Josh Haldi last season, and Ullrich said he only had one miscall to Haldi.

“There was one time last year where I called in the wrong play,” Ullrich said. “I called a ‘stretch’ instead of a ‘zone’ and I was like halfway onto to the field yelling at Haldi to switch the play. But he got it.”

After making its first bowl game in 22 years last season and improving its win total for the past four years, the Huskies system is to doing the job.

“There’s times this year where Phil thought we’ve sent something else,” Ullrich said. “But it’s never been a big issue.”