Sept. 10, 2003
John Heisler: One quick note. Kick-off will be at 3:36 eastern time in Ann Arbor this weekend. We’ll begin by taking some questions from people here in person, then go to questions from people on the telephone.
Q. Can you maybe comment on what has gone into making this Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry such a big thing, and what’s gone into the history of it?
Coach Willingham: From my perspective, I think you would say really one word probably capsulizes it more than anything else: Winning. By that I think you have the No. 1 program in the country in terms of winning percentage involved in this contest. On the other hand, I think you have the No. 1 program in terms of games won in this contest.
So I think when you have two teams that have that kind of history, it’s a natural that this becomes a game that gathers the interest of a lot of people, not only in this region but around the country.
Q. Could you talk a little about the differences in the early season schedule, how much you learn about your team if you play a team like Central Michigan as opposed to Washington State. With Stanford, you started with extremely hard teams, teams not quite as talented on paper. I’m curious if you learn more about your team when you go against a tougher opponent that might give you a little bit harder of a game?
Coach Willingham: I think every time you play the game, you learn a great deal, regardless of the opponent. I think what coaches want to do is have their guys play. Would you like a tight ballgame or a game that you can win by more points? I think they both have great benefit because I think they both can add to the confidence of your football team. I think that’s what you’re interested in, are ways to gain confidence in your football team.
Q. When it comes to Carlyle Holiday, seemed to show quite a bit more comfort in the short passing game, his accuracy there. When it comes to pocket awareness, sensing a defender coming or blitzing, how does he improve in that regard? Is that something that can be coached or something a quarterback just has?
Coach Willingham: Well, number one, I hope we don’t have to improve in that area. I hope we don’t get very many people near him, so you have to work on that skill.
I think so much of it is just a natural awareness. I think the thing that coaches will stress in that situation is once one starts to move and change direction, that you protect the football, will be the coaching point that we try to give.
But I think it becomes very natural for a guy to avoid a rush. I think you see that in a young player when he’s on the playground playing. There’s some people that have the ability to know where other people are. They move, like they have those guided systems that just allow them to make the right move at the right time.
Q. Do you think he still has a few steps to go in that development?
Coach Willingham: No. I think he’s done a good job. I think his ability to scramble, some of the awareness of where people are, is excellent.
Q. You talked about Rhema, his development through the off-season, obviously his role has expanded quite a bit this year. Just looking at him on the field, the way he carries himself, he seems very much in the Arnaz mould in terms of body type. Do you see similarities like that? Just talk about Rhema’s development?
Coach Willingham: I would probably say I don’t see those similarities. I would say that because Rhema has more of what I call a classic basketball type, guard type body type to me. I think you can even see that in the catch he made Saturday, even though it was out of bounds. That was a fantastic catch. I think he brings a little different type player than Arnaz brought to our team last year.
Size-wise, I think Arnaz probably went about, oh, 218. I think Rhema is probably about 10 pounds less than that.
Q. Can you talk about his off-season development, some of the strides he made to put himself in a position to really help the team out more this year.
Coach Willingham: Well, the word “more” is important. I thought he did an excellent job last year in stepping in as a true freshman and making contributions.
The thing I think a player learns more than anything else is how to endure a college season because it’s a little bit more strenuous than a high school season. I think that process is starting to really hit Rhema where he understands the things you have to do, how you go through a season, how you go through both mentally and physically to endure a college football season.
That growth in him I think allowed him to express himself in terms of being knowledgeable in the system, which you would gain with a year, and how to physically have an advance.
Q. Brandon Hoyte led the team in tackles. Can you talk about how he manages to do that game after game? Do some players just have that homing instinct? Every game he started, he’s led the team in tackles.
Coach Willingham: Brandon does a great job of being physical, first of all. I think when you have a very physical player, and he does — despite his size, he is tremendously physical, it allows you to make plays that a guy that is not quite as physical cannot make. I think that’s where you start, number one.
Number two, he loves to play. You would think that everyone loves to play. But they do it at different levels. His enthusiasm for the game allows him to get places that another guy might not get to.
So I think you combine those, and you have a guy that really wants to get to the ball. And when he gets there, he does great things.
Q. He seems like a very cerebral player. How much of his football instinct is fed by knowledge and studying the game?
Coach Willingham: Well, I think he’s just starting to grow there. I think that’s an area that he targeted himself. During the off-season, he wanted to be a more accomplished student of the game. I think he’s really got with his coaches and spent time alone, just watching films, starting to understand not just his position but understanding the game of football. Hopefully that growth will allow him to be even better in terms of making tackles and more contributions to the team.
Q. One of the Michigan’s linemen yesterday said about their tailback that this year the difference in his running is he’s running with his heart, not just his feet. Can you say anything similar with Julius, his performance in the first game?
Coach Willingham: I would say fantastic. Again, I go back and say that Julius’ growth and maturity, his ability to handle responsibility has provided another I’ll call it ounce of strength for him in what was already a very talented runningback. I think it’s given him that little extra.
Q. With the loss of Godsey, Greg Olsen, I was wondering how that may affect some personnel you have on this year’s roster, how you look at players moving from tight end or to that position, and also how it may affect recruiting, not only this year but next year?
Coach Willingham: Well, the recruiting issue, it probably means that we will add the potential of a tight end being brought into our group for next year.
As it relates to our personnel right now, the loss of Godsey has more impact than anyone else because he was a starter. He is a senior and upperclassman that has not only provided good play for us but also excellent leadership. So you miss those qualities that he brought to our football team.
But at the same time our tight end position we feel is a very good position for us with the play of Jared Clark, Billy Palmer. We have not gotten our other two, our younger tight ends, Marcus Freeman and Anthony Fasano, we have not gotten them enough work yet. We have some quality guys that are helping it be a strong position for us.
Q. Can you talk about the freshman on Saturday. Was that something you planned to do? Can you comment on the contributions they gave you?
Coach Willingham: I can comment in general on our freshmen playing. We did play five, if I’m correct. One of them could have been more situation-induced. But the other ones have earned the right to be on the field. We’ve always said in our program that our goal is to play the best player. Those young men have identified themselves at their position as excellent players. That would be for all of them.
But I think the quarterback position, because of what happened to Carlyle, probably necessitated that Brady went in.
Q. You say the best player is going to play. Is it important to demonstrate that to the freshmen so they see evidence that that is the case? Sometimes freshmen don’t play because they’re freshmen.
Coach Willingham: I don’t think there are many coaches that have that outlook. I think if a guy is a good enough player, you put him in because that’s the real strength of your team, that your team has great confidence, not just a message to the freshmen, but your team has great confidence that if they do the things they need to do as a player, that they will have the opportunity to represent themselves and their team on the field. It should make for a stronger football team if you have your best players playing.
Q. Earlier question. Michigan has won a couple pretty lopsided challenges. What kind of challenges does that present for you in preparation? What kind of things do you have to take into account?
Coach Willingham: To answer that question, I’m not sure, because I don’t know how much they might have saved just for Notre Dame. I don’t know how similar they think our game plans might be. So you really are kind of unsure as to exactly what team you’re seeing. I think that’s every week that you go into, because people look at you a lot different sometimes, and you even look at yourself.
One thing we do know: we know this is an excellent football team. They’re very strong in all areas. I think even though their games have been lopsided, it is not necessarily because of the competition but because of their good play.
Q. Michigan was a game you won at home last year. There were a couple others like that. You talked about the atmosphere, how that can help a team. On the other side, going up to Michigan, particularly a young offensive line, some other players in that kind of atmosphere for the first time, what kind of challenges does that present? How do you prepare them for it?
Coach Willingham: The latter part of that is probably more difficult: How do you prepare them for it? I don’t know if there’s any true preparation you can have for those situations other than experience.
But I think what we have to take into Michigan stadium is a “just us” kind of mentality, that it’s going to be just us the football team fighting off a lot of people, their fans, their team, to come away with a victory. That is very difficult when you have to go in as I think one of their players says, “This time it’s in our house.” That is always a very difficult thing to do, go into someone else’s house and take what you want.
Q. Could you talk about Chris Perry, what he shows on the football field?
Coach Willingham: His play is incredible. I mean, he is playing so much better. I think someone earlier said he’s playing with his heart, if I’m correct. That was a statement. But he’s a much better player than he was. That’s very difficult to deal with.
Q. Similar with John Navarre and Braylon Edwards. Seems like the experience, he’s grown a lot as a quarterback.
Coach Willingham: Well, I think they’re more comfortable putting the game in his hands, whereas I think before they might have been a little cautious. But now they have great confidence that he can do all the right things to make their team a great team. Of course, he’s got some great weapons around him. When you have that, the results show itself. I think it is, what, 50 and 45 in the two ball games that they’ve played, they scored. So I think they’re very confident about what they can do and what their players bring to the table.
Q. For you guys, Courtney Watson, what will he add to your defense, not just physically? He calls a lot of shots out there, right?
Coach Willingham: Yes, he does. He will add confidence, experience, and playing skill.
John Heisler: We’ll take some electronic Q&A questions from the telephone.
Q. Given that the loser of this game will perhaps have a difficult time climbing back into the national championship hunt, when you have such a tough schedule, would that be advantageous for teams like Michigan and Notre Dame to have a post-season playoff?
Coach Willingham: If you’re out of the hunt?
Q. It’s hard to stay in the hunt if you lose an early game, whereas if there were a playoff, would you have time to recover, make an eight-team or 16-team bracket.
Coach Willingham: I’m cautious of answering because I don’t want to advocate a playoff. At the same time I recognize if one is out of the hunt, any system that’s created it allows you to get back in the hunt is a good thing.
Q. Can you see such a system being possible without a playoff?
Coach Willingham: I won’t even speculate.
Q. Carlyle talked about his development earlier this season, really trying to fine tune things over the summer. Talk about what you saw in the first game from Carlyle? Is he a different and better quarterback, and how?
Coach Willingham: Well, I don’t think there’s any question he is more comfortable in our system. That allows you to be hopefully a better quarterback and hopefully at some point it shows some real productivity.
I’m pleased with what Carlyle has brought to our team in terms of his leadership. I think he is better and stronger in this area. I think physically he is a better player, a stronger player, and I think he’s more confident.
Q. Going back to Courtney for a second, when you first saw him play, whether that was when he was on the other side of the line or on your side, what did you really appreciate about him?
Coach Willingham: From day one, I’ve always appreciated his leadership and his ability to understand the game of football. You see that many times on the sideline, not necessarily right across from you. With the questions he asked regarding the game, I think you see he has an understanding of what’s taking place not just at his position, but also from an offensive perspective.
Q. Have you also seen some other growth in trying to teach some of the younger guys like maybe Brandon Hoyte how to become better linebackers?
Coach Willingham: I think Courtney has done that very naturally. It’s one of the things we point our guys to and just say, “Follow him.” You know he’ll be doing all the right things.
Q. I was wondering, all your time spent at Michigan, when was the last time you were actually at a game at Michigan stadium?
Coach Willingham: That would probably have to be in the early ’80s.
Q. Anything in particular you remember about that game, any other games you’ve been a part of there?
Coach Willingham: That it is a difficult place to go in and have success.
Q. Now that Brady Quinn has played, there’s no question about whether he’s going to play this year, are you going to look to maybe get him some more experience along the way, plan things to get him in the game at some point?
Coach Willingham: I think it’s advantageous to us if we do. But I never try to set a concrete schedule for that because it often is dictated by the pace of the game, what happens in the game. You don’t want a situation where you have commitments and you can’t live up to them.
Q. Michigan has played two games, you’ve obviously played one. Is there any advantage to playing two games as opposed to one or does the fact that you guys had to play a hard-fought game against a quality opponent make up that difference?
Coach Willingham: Well, I think whatever advantages there are, they’re definitely in Michigan’s corner. Having two games as opposed to one gives you an opportunity to see and learn a little bit more about yourself. I think they’ve used that opportunity well.
Q. What does the cornerback situation look like this weekend, considering the injuries to Jason Beckstrom and (inaudible)?
Coach Willingham: The status of those individuals will really be played out as we go through the week. Right now we have not ruled anyone out of the ballgame and not necessarily have we ruled anyone in. We’ll see exactly today what the status of those guys are.
Q. Going back in this rivalry a little bit, it seems this game tends to affect the rest of the season for either team. The team that wins, it can kind of propel them up and onward, sometimes hurts the season of the team that loses. Can you talk about the experience of beating Michigan last year, how that helped propel your team on to what turned out to be quite a good season?
Coach Willingham: Thank you. My focus is probably a little bit different because I try to make sure our football team understands that, yes, this is a great rivalry, that, yes, Michigan is a great team, as we consider any and all the teams that we play.
But the effects of this ballgame you have to be very careful about. You don’t want anything, any one ballgame, to overly affect your season – unless of course it is in a positive manner.
I think last year’s game was a good win for us. But when you look at the whole scheme of things, I try to make sure we count it as simply one game and not place any greater value on it than one game.
Q. UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell has mentioned you as somebody he followed and paid particular attention to. Can you talk about your relationship to him and why you think he can be successful out there?
Coach Willingham: I think he can be successful because he brings a very common-sense approach to his football team and will establish a great rapport with his players, not from the standpoint of what I call being a prayers’ coach, but simply being a coach that makes right decisions based on the young men and the program.
Q. You mentioned going into Michigan stadium, trying to win in their house. Do you do anything specifically during the week to deal with 100,000 people, all the sort of things that’s involved in that?
Coach Willingham: I think you have to. But I think the configuration of the stadium, if I remember correctly, is a bowl shape. Sometimes there’s a different sound being in that stadium compared to some other stadiums where you deal with upper decks, things of that nature. Hopefully we’ll try to tailor sound and different things we prepare for for that ballgame to their stadium so our guys will have some semblance of what it feels like or appears to feel like in that background. We’ll try to do as many things as possible from going inside at some point this week where we have an opportunity to be on a very similar surface that the game will be played on, trying to duplicate some of the conditions for the game.
Q. Do you have any specific memories as a player? You probably don’t have any more trainers, coach catching on fires. Anything like that?
Coach Willingham: I can invent a couple (laughter). No, there’s nothing specific. Only it is other historic venue to play in. They’ve had great success. They are a very good team. Anytime you play a very good team, it doesn’t matter where you play them at, it is very difficult to have success.
John Heisler: A couple more people on-site.
Q. Last year the position that Courtney Watson played, that position led the team in tackles for the season. Can you talk about the chemistry of seeing the two of them start together, Brandon, especially adding in the experience of Derek Curry?
Coach Willingham: That was the luxury that was afforded to us last week with the absence of Courtney, that we had the kind of experience that we could count on Derek and Brandon to step in and play different positions and give our team something. Hopefully with the two together, we have some very aggressive linebackers that will make very smart plays. But it’s not just our linebackers. And I think that’s often a leg that’s kind of missing when you start talking about the play of Brandon and Courtney and Derek. What’s also very critical to their success is our guys up front play. When you’ve got Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard, Kyle Budinscak, Justin Tuck doing some very good things and in some cases even protecting our linebackers so they can get to make those plays, that allows them the luxury of doing some very good things and accumulating some numbers.
Q. The development of Justin Tuck and the luxury of developing next to the other three guise you mentioned.
Coach Willingham: It’s always a plus when the success or failure of your team doesn’t hinge on one person. In Justin’s case, he has an opportunity to step in the lineup, add to the lineup with his athletic skill, drive and desire, based on the help that’s given to him by Cedric inside, Darrell inside, of course Kyle doing the things that they do.
So it allows him to not have to carry the whole weight, which also reflects on our linebackers, because now you have those guys being protected, opportunities created for them, and you have a defense that works and feeds off each other.
John Heisler: Thanks very much.
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