State of the Nation: Vol. VII

By John Mahoney '21

Each Wednesday prior to Notre Dame football home games, junior defensive back John Mahoney brings you State of the Nation, an inside look at the Irish from a walk-on’s perspective. A reference to the Walk-On Players’ Union and WOPU Nation, State of the Nation, will take you inside the locker room and on the sidelines throughout the 2019 season. Mahoney, a native of West Des Moines, Iowa, is a finance major in the Mendoza College of Business with a minor in history. This week’s installment is his last of the season.

I’ve referenced it in one of my earlier articles, but my primary role on this year’s team is to serve as a signal-caller for our defense. And though this role may sound relatively self-explanatory, I’m certain that you’d be amazed by the number of questions I receive regarding my duties and responsibilities. With that in mind — and given that I’m nearing a full season’s worth of experience in this role — I figured that I’d take the opportunity to take you inside the meetings and onto the sideline to hopefully give you a better sense of who we are and what we do, both during the week and on Saturdays. 

Before I begin, I want to preface by saying that I work exclusively as a defensive signal-caller — meaning that, as I describe my experiences, I can’t speak for my counterparts on the offensive side of the ball. They insist that their job is far more complicated than ours and have a certain superiority complex about them that I’m not sure is entirely justified, but I’ll let you take a look at their operation this Saturday and judge for yourself.

I digress. Back to the topic at hand. 

If you’ve watched our defense at all this fall, I’m hoping you’ve noticed the three guys on the sideline wearing headsets, colored hats and jerseys gesturing towards the players on the field. Simply put, we are the messengers between the coaching staff in the box and the players on the field. We signal in the calls, but also communicate personnel groupings and other information that is necessary to place our guys in a position to succeed. 

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that the number of individual calls we have reaches well into the triple digits. And though we usually don’t use that many during a given week, it is up to us to not only remember the old signals but dream up new ones when Coach Lea and the rest of the defensive staff decide to put in a new call. I’m certain that you could guess some of them, while there are others so obscure that if I wasn’t part of the creative process, even I would have no idea what they’re meant to represent. 

On that note — if you can’t figure out what we’re doing, that’s great. You’re not supposed to be able to. Without disclosing anything proprietary, I will note that beyond ensuring that the 11 men on the field are operating with the correct information, a lot of what we do is meant to “throw off” the other team and hopefully discourage them from attempting to steal our signals. 

It’s a fun gig, and I’ve had the opportunity to see the game from an entirely new perspective this fall. Being exposed to the stream of consciousness of some of the brightest up-and-coming defensive minds in our country is unbelievably cool, and I’ve gained such an appreciation for the high-level strategy that goes into the product you see on Saturday. And on a more personal level, it’s allowed me to not only find a spot on the travel roster but also play a small role in the on-field success of the team, which is something I take a lot of pride in. 

If you can make it out this Saturday, don’t hesitate to take a peek at the sideline. I’ll be wearing my gold hat and jersey, while my fellow signalers will be in green and red. We’ll be busy doing our best to send our seniors out with a win — and, as always, are incredibly grateful for all the support you’ve shown us throughout the season.

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