Oct. 15, 2002
JOHN HEISLER: Just a couple quick notes, kickoff this weekend out in Colorado Springs will be at 8:06 mountain time that’s 9:06 here in South Bend, 10:06 eastern time. Also for those of you who are watching this via satellite we have adjusted the timing by about 15 minutes so that satellite feed actually begins at 11:15 and goes through 12:15; that’s South Bend time.
Coach Willingham is here. We’ll begin by taking some questions.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Good morning.
Q. Talk about the challenge preparing for the Air Force option.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s been well noted over time that this is a very difficult offense to prepare for. You don’t get the opportunity to really simulate the blocking schemes in the manner that they will do it, even though we’ll do our best job of trying to reproduce what they do. But there’s no way you can probably get the speed and the confidence that they bring to it in practice.
Q. The secondary talked over the weekend about how they kind of have nicknames for each other. They seemed to have established separate identities. Talk about their personalities and the style that they bring in blending together to play together?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I first better go find out what their nicknames are, make sure I am on the same page.
I think the first thing you have to do is recognize how similar they are in terms of the intensity with which they play and the competitiveness in which they play. Then I think you have got Shane (Walton) that’s probably a little more outspoken. He could be kind of the legislator of the group, I think.
You have got Glenn (Earl) that’s probably a little more quiet, probably the hitter of the group the way he kind of sees himself and does things.
(Gerome) Sapp could kind of be the overall leader. I think you might say Vontez (Duff) may be the athletic specimen of the group.
Q. Vontez (Duff) said not playing defense until he got to college, he still feels like he’s really kind of learning. He feels very new in the position. What kind of things do you see that even for as well as he’s played that kind of show that sort of inexperience in the position?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I don’t know if I can say I have seen that inexperience.
I think he falls prey like all defensive backs to having a mistake here or there, but his play has been amazingly solid and amazingly mature in my estimation.
Q. Mid-point in the season can you evaluate how well Carlyle (Holiday) has adapted to this offense and maybe some areas that you are still looking for improvement for his performance?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As far as areas of improvement, you are always interested in every area. There’s no area that’s good enough — I think Carlyle would be the first to say that. But I would say that I have been pleased from Day 1 with his decision?making ability at that position. That means that as you go through an afternoon of 70 to 80 snaps there are always going to be one or two decisions that he would like to have back and I would like to have back, but I have been very pleased with his decision?making ability. I have said all along that it’s not necessarily physical skills that would determine how well that position is played, but more the decision?making ability therein.
Q. Talk little bit about Courtney Watson how he acts as a leader to this team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Courtney has definitely been a leader for this team and I think his presence was missed even though we had some great play out of (Brandon) Hoyte and our other linebackers. He just has that experience and ability to identify things and communicate things that other players are still learning and when you have someone in that position it’s a valuable asset because it kind of calms down your defense and allows everyone to be a better player.
Q. I know you don’t have any choice in the matter but can you address what the late start Saturday night does? It’s going to be after 9 o’clock South Bend time before the game starts; what effect will that have and what can you do to counterbalance that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think you are perfectly right in saying that I don’t have any choice. Usually when I don’t, I kind of defer those to others that do have a choice. But it probably makes it kind of like being on the west coast in a sense — it makes it more difficult for your fans to probably stay up and see the game as much as anything else.
But what we’ll do is go out and play the game. We’ll try not to have as many things or as few things as possible be distractions and just concentrate on playing the football game.
Q. Arnaz Battle is a fifth-year receiver but this is his only second year playing wide receiver. What were your impressions of him coming in and what improvement has he made throughout the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Arnaz has done a great job of slowly learning the position and I say that in light of the fact that, yes, he was a receiver a year ago but at the same time I don’t think the demand of this system was placed on him last year. So in my estimation he’s really just starting to learn the position. So the spring was good for him and of course there’s nothing to help you grow as much as a football season. So, participating and playing every week, is allowing him to really grow and learn the position better. Whether it’s the understanding how to read coverages better; how to play the ball better; or how to even run routes better; how to position yourself, all those things I think he’s acquiring a real skill for as we progress through the season.
Q. Besides him progressing naturally, it would seem that the catch he had to win the Michigan State game and the performance he had last week against Pittsburgh would just boost his confidence and help that progress along?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I sincerely hope it does. I hope that every small and every large success that he had just allows him to grow immeasurably so we can get hopefully the kind of offensive play that we think could come out of our offense.
Q. Justin Tuck gave up quite a bit of size last Saturday to Pittsburgh. Talk about his performance considering what he’s up against there.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s kind of hard for myself to look at that size equation. We simply look at the production and we know that Justin is an outstanding athlete with an explosive physique to him. He’s a guy that, whoever he may be, undersized as you were mentioning here, he is an explosive athlete and his ability to come off the edge, get off the ball, leverage himself, and create pressure on that offensive tackle is a real plus for our defense. And with him, I think being able to add the pressure that he added, it makes the job a lot easier for the guys inside and makes them even more effective.
Q. You talked about Air Force’s offense and what kind of challenges it may present. Talk a little bit about their defense. They have some pretty solid numbers too.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Their defense is very solid and I think what happens is everyone gets caught looking at their offense and worrying about that scheme, but they have done a great job. I think they are one of the top teams in turnover ratio if I am correct on that. I think they may even be tied with us in terms of the number of turnovers for the season that they have created or somewhere along that line. But this is a good solid defense that plays disciplined football and plays very aggressive which is consistent with the way their entire team plays.
Q. How much experience as a coach have you had going against this style of offense or an option-style offense? You probably didn’t encounter that a whole lot at Stanford.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You are absolutely correct. I don’t think we saw very much option other than a play or two mixed in at Stanford.
Q. When was the last time that you did encounter it as a coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know.
Q. Do you lean more heavily then on assistant coaches such as (defensive line coach) Greg Mattison who has faced it every year for the last five, six years or (linebacker coach) Bob Simmons who came from the Big 12 where he was exposed to it a little bit more against a team like Nebraska?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We lean on everyone on the staff to be able to make a contribution and give us ideas on how is the best way to defend or attack an opponent.
Q. You took over at the end of the Pittsburgh game with a little bit more than a minute to go. I saw you on the sideline with the coaches trying to figure out how many timeouts they have left and the timing of everything. Is there a chart that you follow or does somebody do the math on the sideline? What is the procedure in trying to figure out how you are going to use up that time on the clock?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we knew when it reached a certain point with them only having, I think it was, one timeout that we could kill the clock at that point.
Q. Does somebody literally do the math on the sideline?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, it’s too late to do that. You have to have all that hopefully calculated out before then.
Q. Is there a chart that you follow?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We try to.
Q. Obviously and you have said it many times the most important stat or the only number that really matters are the numbers on the scoreboard. But when you look at statistics and look at a stat sheet are there one or two statistics that you feel are a little bit more important than others, turnovers, or whatever?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I will be the first to say that I think without any question, and you have mentioned it, the score is No. 1. No. 2 could be turnovers. No. 3 could be rushing defense. And you look at those and usually those give you a pretty good indicator of who won the football game.
Q. Are you surprised that even with the offense’s troubles that you are 6 and 0? I know you keep saying that’s the most important thing, but did you envision the offense having as much trouble as it has had?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, you always hope to have absolutely the best offense you can have and we hope the same thing for our defense. We like to get shutouts every weekend and like to score 30, 40 points every weekend. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and right now we are in one of those stretches where we haven’t done that from an offensive standpoint. Do we expect to get better? Yes. Do we want to get better? Yes.
Q. You said I think at media day that it would take a long time for the offense to learn the west coast offense. Is there a problem learning it or is it a problem running it? Is it that they don’t know enough yet or they are not running it properly?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Any time a young man is thinking, the ability to execute is reduced and probably right now within our structure we still have some thinking going on. Is there a timetable exactly when you know the offense? I don’t know it. We can master some things on Day 1, some things you don’t. It’s an ongoing process, hopefully we’re getting better and better and closer and closer to being the offense we’d like to be.
Q. Generally when people think of service academies they think of Air Force which has consistently had good teams and especially given Notre Dame trouble in the past. Why do you think it is that this one out of the three is able to put together such a strong program?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know. I think you’d have to say that they have been able to establish some tradition and history and have a special athlete that they have carved out that they know can factor into their program every year, so the overall tradition and consistency of recruiting and consistency of the program I think has probably allowed them to find their place.
Q. You talked about the difficulty in preparing the defense against a triple threat option attack. Do you make any specific changes? Do you try to get more speed in the lineup? Is it more assignment type of football, more specific than how you go about defending that type of an offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What it does place a huge burden on are your responsibilities in terms of the option, so you have got to have every player coordinated well. One has to take the dive; one has to take the quarterback; one has to take the pitch. And they give it to you in a variety of manners; whether it is a straight triple option or a load option, or it’s some type of counter that they mix in there, so it comes at you in a variety of ways with motions and adjustments. Every player has to be very disciplined in his responsibilities and where they get you is usually someone doesn’t physically execute or someone mentally makes the mistake in their assignment and plays the wrong part of the option and out the gate they go.
Q. Glenn (Earl) as a hitter, I am curious do you feel like that’s more of a mentality that goes into coming up and popping people and how does he kind of achieve that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, I think you have to ask God that question in a sense and I mean that seriously. Some guys have it in their makeup. They just love the physical portion of it and they play more physical than the next man. We would love to be able to have that pill, so we can give it to everybody on the team and everybody would have that same skill. But I think Glenn is kind of a special guy that he really enjoys that and whatever his wiring is or makeup is, that’s a huge part of what he does and how he plays.
Q. You mentioned you felt like he’s maybe a little more quiet than some of the other guys in the secondary. Does he kind of just fit well as the guy that follows the rest of the more boisterous guys back there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am not sure if the others leave enough space for him to communicate, so (laughter) … I mean, he might just naturally take that role because that’s all that’s left.
Q. You mentioned that Air Force’s defense sometimes is overlooked. They have been quite stout against the run this year; yet on the defensive line in some positions they are a little undersized.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s their overall discipline and their will to be successful and I think that’s ingrained in most of our academies, it’s just something about the personalities of those teams that they never quit; they are always on the aggressive, and I think that makes for them, along with their scheme, to be able to play good, solid defense.
Q. I am sure that you are not a betting man but Air Force is actually favored this week. Can that be a source of motivation for your team this week in practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have always said that we’ll use any source of motivation available.
Q. You paid some compliments to Air Force and their coach. I don’t know if you happened to catch it last night but Fisher (DeBerry) was interviewed on one of the talk shows and he said that not only does he admire you greatly, but you, in fact, are one of his idols. Could you comment on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would first say thank you because that’s a huge compliment coming from Fisher because I think without question he is one of the outstanding coaches in the country and obviously has done a great job at Air Force. Other than that, gosh, I would probably say I am surprised.
Q. It’s seems like both Notre Dame and Air Force were kind of unknown qualities coming into the season. How did you get your team to be where they are right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s always, I think, a difficult question to answer because there are so many things that go into that that I am not sure you could ever put your finger on any one thing that contributed to you being successful.
I think we have had a group of young men that are eager to be successful. They have been working extremely hard during the course of the spring and summer and now into the season. We have had the ball bounce our way in some cases and I think for the most part our coaches have done a great job in preparing our young men.
Q. Do you have any thoughts as far as the altitude? Falcon Stadium is about 6200 feet. I know a lot of coaches feel that it is not a factor. Others feel that it might be. Your thoughts on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As long as both teams have to play at the same level, I am okay.
Q. Of course Air Force practices and lives at that level. Is that an advantage?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I think we’ll run faster after training at sea level.
Q. Wondering if you felt like you had to substitute more early than you might do customarily due to altitude?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t think so. I think we have been rotating our guys pretty much at all of our key positions, those positions especially that we feel like we have the ability to rotate, and we’ll continue that.
Q. I wonder if you could give me your idea on this, why do you think more teams operate in the wishbone offense and why do you think Air Force has been so successful in what they have been able to carve out over the years with Fisher running that offence?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think, No. 1, any style of offense that you run, one of the key ingredients has to be that you believe in that offense and believe in that style and that system. I don’t think there’s any doubt that they thoroughly believe in the option, their execution of it and therefore their players believe in it and they do a great job with it.
Q. Have you given any thoughts to ever have anything like that in an offense that you run any place in your college career or in your coaching career?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I have been very comfortable with the mixture of running and passing it in a pro-style offense.
Q. It seems like a lot of times when a coach is in his first year at a program he will talk about how he needs to restock talent. When you came in and took measure of this program, when do you look around and say we really have a lot of players, because you have got a lot of veteran talent who has given a lot of leadership?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I probably never took that look or tried to make that type of evaluation. The game is played with the idea that you play it to win and that’s the way we started to work with our football team. I would hate to be a coach that comes in and says to a senior that we’re building for the future. I mean, that’s not what a senior wants to hear. He wants to say, coach, this is my last year. I want to be successful right now. So I would believe that any coach would make plans along that line. At least I felt like that was the right thing for myself to make. So we have gone out with the thought process that we’re interested in winning the next ballgame that we play.
Q. A lot of the seniors have talked about sort of their hunger to win and hunger to have success this season. Can you sense that sort of absolute desire to get back on the football field and turn things around a little bit from their record last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I have said — I think I even mentioned it somewhere today — that the group of young men that we’re coaching were eager to be successful, so without question they have done the work. They have paid the price for us to have the success that we’re having right now.
Q. Along the same line talk a little bit about your ability to rotate players. It seems you have used almost everybody on the bench this year and you haven’t been shy about playing everybody. Just maybe the mentality behind that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the more people that have an active involvement in what you are doing, the stronger your team becomes because then their level of commitment goes up. It’s very difficult sometimes to be committed when you are really not involved other than just in practice. So I think our ability to use as many players as possible helps us be a stronger team because of each individual’s commitment to the team.
Q. That goes with obviously playing freshmen and sophomores and people who have never seen the field before, obviously you have a gotten fairly positive reaction from them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We would hope so. In some cases it has been good and other cases you are still wondering what happened on that given play. But the key again is if you can get young people involved and again it’s not just to involve young people, it has to be those that have earned and deserved a right to be involved and if so, if you believe that, then you trust that they will make the right plays at the right time.
Q. Can you just talk about field position? A lot of people don’t focus on this and don’t even notice it unless there’s a mistake or something, but just the advantage of having a punter like Joey (Hildbold) for field position and what it means?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The key thing about field position, if you were to go back and track statistically touchdowns scored, you could start at one end of the field and go to the other and the percentage would increase with each basically 15 to 10 yards that you mark off. I would imagine if you got the ball on the 5-yard line, your 5-yard line, that it would probably be maybe about three percent that you might take and march those in for touchdowns and as you go down the field that percentage increases. So field position is always a key element in a football game because eventually your percentage goes up just based on field position that you score a touchdown, which means the more touchdowns you score the greater chance you have to win. In our case, especially in the Pittsburgh game, Joey did a fantastic job of keeping them pinned in that area that usually produces a low percentage of touchdowns scored. Even though they may have gotten two or three first downs, you still just get to midfield in many of those cases. So it is a tremendous advantage to be able to control field position.
Q. A lot of people early on looked at the schedule and thought the first three or four games would be the toughest. Now mid-season it looks like these next games might be the toughest back-to-back. I know you say take it one week at a time. Are you looking at them — obviously they are going to play a big part in what happens the rest of the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Those people that made those decisions definitely did not talk to Coach Willingham. Because — and I said this from Day 1 — a football game is a hard thing to win. And you can take any game and there are more than just the on-field dynamics that determine what happens. I would think if you went back to Michigan State this year, and they had I think it was California the week before, somehow some of their players might have felt that California was insignificant on that schedule or maybe someone had told them that that was an easy football game. That did not turn out to be an easy football game. I think you can go on and on every week in college football and have those kind of dynamics surround a football game that just in itself make winning a football game very difficult. So I would never look at the schedule and say that this one is any more difficult than the other one because I know sometimes the thought process that goes on with players that it becomes extremely difficult to win any game at any time. Thank you.
JOHN HEISLER: Thank you very much.
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