Sept. 23, 2003
Q. Coach, I wonder if you could comment on the quarterback situation. How will you go about making a decision on the quarterback?
Coach Willingham: We will go with the quarterback who will give us the best opportunity to win.
Q. And right now based on the three games in what you’ve seen from both players, what’s your idea of which one gives you the best chance?
Coach Willingham: It has brought us to the point that we need to make that decision this week, and we’ll let our practices and let the previous history make that decision.
Q. Because it is difficult to have two people playing at quarterback, and Notre Dame and actually Purdue have had some quarterbacks transfer over the last couple of years, what are some problems specific to the position in terms of recruiting and how you can retain players, since once the players establishes himself, the guys behind may look elsewhere for an opportunity?
Coach Willingham: I think it all depends on the opportunity that you create within the program. I think our players feel like they have a fair opportunity. They are not discouraged by having good players in the system and hopefully we will always have good players in the system. But there’s also a possibility a young man might say he’s not as good as the guy in front of him; and therefore, that diminishes the opportunity. They have to balance all of that and we have to make sure we provide a fair opportunity for our players, and we do that.
Q. Even with a fair opportunity, someone may decide to go elsewhere. Does that affect how you approach recruiting or how you approach the idea of when a player might play to kind of keep them feeling like they are a part of the program instead of looking elsewhere?
Coach Willingham: No. That’s something that I don’t get into. I’ve always said our best players play and we let them make that decision.
Q. Last year when the team was winning, you talked about fighting against human nature and how that success can work against a team. What are your concerns now about how a team may react to a couple of losses in a row and what do you do?
Coach Willingham: As you mentioned, I’ve always said that success and failure both can be detrimental to your next opportunity. You have to guard against both of those because they do involve human nature, and we work to keep our system on track keep our guys positive and moving forward. What you realize is that what you did last week, doesn’t help you this week, and what you’ll do in the future doesn’t help you. It’s what you do today.
Q. Does your approach or that of the coaching staff change whether you are coming off a win or a loss in terms of the attitude of the team and how you focus toward the next week?
Coach Willingham: The attitude of the team does have an impact because you have to take that into account. It cannot be solely the way you think about it. It has to be also the involvement of your team.
Q. Coaches that have been here in the past have talked about concerns over losing a senior class. Have you ever been in that situation as a head class, perhaps ’98 when Stanford was 3?8; was that a concern?
Coach Willingham: You are always concerned. You are always concerned about any class, and every class and you want to keep them as active and as involved as possible. But at the same time, senior classes have a responsibility to step up and provide leadership for your football team.
Q. Is there ever a point where you would sacrifice playing experience for the sake of getting younger players playing time for the future?
Coach Willingham: If it’s in the best interests of the team and provides you an opportunity to win, yes.
Q. Do you know what Bobby Morton’s long and short?term status is and can you comment the performance of Darin Mitchell and Jamie Ryan?
Coach Willingham: I was pleased with the effort that both Jamie and Darin Mitchell gave. I thought our guys gave good effort, but like everywhere on our football team, we have to continue to improve our execution. Bob Morton, I think we’ll probably list him as we begin this week as possible.
Q. I believe Bob Whitfield and Kwame Harris, did that start as true freshman on the offensive line for you at Stanford?
Coach Willingham: I think Bob started at left tackle, as a true freshman, and Ryan started at right tackle as a true freshman.
Q. What are specifically some of the things that are so difficult for a freshman to adapt to playing on the offensive line?
Coach Willingham: Offensive style. Most of them don’t have the technique or get the coaching or understand the complexities of defensive fronts that you see in college. And trying to master all of that, along with the strength, it usually slows their progress down.
Q. Is John Sullivan close to being ready?
Coach Willingham: John Sullivan is doing some very good things.
Q. Would it be fair to say that you will be holding an open tryout for the quarterback position this week?
Coach Willingham: I won’t say all of that because that would definitely be saying too much. (Laughter) I thought you would like that.
Q. I think Coach Diedrick said after the game, the two quarterbacks will probably get the equal amount of time. Do you worry whoever is playing will be getting less practice ?
Coach Willingham: That is always a concern. But the larger concern is to make sure you’ve got the right guy to lead your football team. That’s the thing that’s most important.
Q. After watching the film, did you see any progress? Have you seen progress the past two weeks in the offense?
Coach Willingham: Yes, I have. I told our football team that I have seen progress. We are closer at doing some things better, but we still have to finish the product and that’s the key for us – execution and the finishing of that product.
Q. Have you been surprised at how the offense has struggled? Did you expect more from the offense than what you’ve seen so far?
Coach Willingham: I always expect more. And you really don’t know how things are going to come together, and that’s why the games are so critical because it really tells you where you are. You can see one thing and believe one thing in practice, but it’s actually the games that give you the real sketch of what you’re doing. It is, I think, slower than I anticipated, but we’ll see if we can accelerate that.
Q. Can you talk about the play of Victor Abiamiri? He was starting mainly because of injury but he played real well?
Coach Willingham: Victor’s appearance is not just based on injury. Victor has played very well from day one when he arrived in our camp. He’s shown himself to be a physical player. He’s shown himself to be an intelligent player, and he’s adapted very well to college football.
Q. On the depth chart this week, he is officially back behind Justin Tuck this week. Is it because Justin has played so well that Victor has not been there?
Coach Willingham: I think our plan is to utilize both of them.
Q. After last year, record aside, I think the fans and many of us in the media perhaps overlook the fact that you are coaching players that were recruited by your predecessor. How has that affected the team’s play?
Coach Willingham: In my opinion, it hasn’t. Those players that were listed in the previous program fit under one category for me: They are Notre Dame football players. So in my estimation, they are all a part of the same system. What we have to do is, and my outlook is, execute, execute, execute. Teach them the right thing, and if we do the right things, we’ll be in good shape.
Q. Have they adjusted to your so?called West Coast offense?
Coach Willingham: Right now, no one has adjusted. We are not being very productive in our offense and we have to be much better at that. I think there is an answer for that question that would say, no, we haven’t adjusted. But I don’t think it’s necessarily because another regime recruited those individuals. We are not executing and we are not doing the things that good offenses have to do.
Q. Are you surprised at any areas, offense or defense, and any specific players coming in that, perhaps players that excelled, or you did not think would do as well or quite the opposite?
Coach Willingham: I think the play of Jamie Ryan the other day, because originally he was a tackle. We’ve done some work with him earlier in camp, and for him to step in and play some guard and give what we thought was a great effort, that was not a surprise. I think the two young receivers have done some good things. Josh Schmidt has done some good things. There are some players that are doing some good things. We are just not finishing the process.
Q. Are there any areas where you are disappointed?
Coach Willingham: Specifically, yes. Record, 1?2. That’s not where we want to be or where we hope to be.
Q. Will we see any different offense this week?
Coach Willingham: I’m hoping you don’t see anything different, but by this weekend, there might be a few more wrinkles.
Q. We’d like to ask you the question as it relates to the morale of the team. Many other groups have incentives for their players, like stars on the helmet, they do things that will give them recognition. Is there any kind of incentive program that will be an outward display that maybe they will try to perform a little better to get that star on the helmet or get that special recognition?
Coach Willingham: No, there isn’t. The focus at Notre Dame has always been about the team and not the individual; collectively, when we come together as a team, that end result of winning the game provides all that the individual and the team needs.
Q. You said that sometimes there is a certain spark you see in a freshman, that they understand what’s going on out there. Is there a point in fall camp that maybe you saw that in Victor?
Coach Willingham: I just think Victor, when he arrived, just kind of set himself apart in terms of what he could provide physically, because that’s the first leap that you have to have. The second leap is becoming comfortable mentally with what’s going on. And I think he has acclimated himself very well. But he is still learning. There are things that he is still adjusting to and becoming comfortable with and each day, he will get better and better.
Q. Whether it be offensive lineman or defensive lineman, the natural physical strength, does he have maybe more of a gift in that regard than a lot of other freshmen lineman?
Coach Willingham: I think you could say he’s got great genes, yes.
Q. As you go through this week at practice looking at the quarterback situation, is there a point where you feel like, “I need to have this done on Wednesday so I can give the starter a few more reps”? Is that something that you feel comfortable going to the end of Thursday and making a decision?
Coach Willingham: If we could have that decision today, it would be better for the team, better for the quarterback, better for everyone. We don’t have a problem making it as soon as possible. But it would have to be in our estimation the right time when you make that decision. So if it takes till the end of the week to make that decision, then that’s when we’ll make it.
Q. Some of the players after the game, they seemed very much at a loss when the question comes up of why is this happening and how do you fix it. As a coach, is that distressing to hear that the players don’t seem to have answers, or do you look at that as “that is my job, I need to provide the answers?”
Coach Willingham: Hopefully all of the above. You would like your players to have answers because that means your leadership is stepping up and has a finger on the pulse of the team themselves. But as a coach, that’s partly my responsibility, too, to make sure that I can define for them where our problems are, so that they can see them and then work through them.
Q. One of the things the players have talked about, they are working harder, coming back with more focus, it seems like teams will say that after every loss. Is there some point where you need something else, you need a new direction in terms of getting these guys on the right track?
Coach Willingham: There’s no question that you have to on each episode that you suffer a defeat or anything goes wrong, you have to come back and work harder. There’s no other way to do it.
Q. Can you talk about Purdue, what you’ve seen on tape and maybe a little bit about their defense?
Coach Willingham: In my estimation when we started the season, this was a team that we needed to respect because it’s rare that a team can be both the total offensive and defensive leader in the Big Ten. We knew that looking at last year, had they not made some of the mistakes – even though we believed that we were one of the teams that helped create some of the mistakes against them – had they not made some of the mistakes last year, they would have been one of the better team in the country record?wise. And they had a lot of games that hinged on a turnover here, a turnover there, so we know we have to have great respect for this football team. The defense that they put together, I think is yielding very little yardage on the ground and not much more in the air. They are doing a great job of playing their package and playing as one. And offensively, I think their quarterback and two?receiver combination is probably as good as you’ll find around.
Q. Have you lost to a team three years or four years in a row and the senior class looked at that game as, that’s our last chance to beat Team X and how much of a motivating factor that can be?
Coach Willingham: That can be a tremendous plus for you. You talk to your seniors each week about their opportunities, whether it be the fact that you only have five or six opportunities at home in your senior year; or that this is last time you’ll play this team and how you want to go out. So you always try to play on that because it’s an important thing for the seniors to finish strong in their final year.
Q. The offensive line this year – is the biggest challenge cohesiveness, not having game experience, or is it technique?
Coach Willingham: It is, honestly, it is all of those. It is like any other skill that you really haven’t done in the arena before. Everything is critical. Working together, your technique, knowledge of your system, all of those things are important.
Q. Are you surprised that it has not come along a little bit better at this point?
Coach Willingham: I have to answer that by saying, yes, because we want it to be better. And had it been better, I would still say that, yes, we want it to be better.
Q. Having an offensive line that is having some of the growing pains like that and has some new starters, does that affect the way that you look at your quarterback situation? For example, would you be more reluctant to throw an inexperienced quarterback in when you have an inexperienced line?
Coach Willingham: I think I’m on record that saying the quarterback position and the cornerback position, because of those, what I call “the isolation” of those two positions, you have to be very careful that you don’t play those two too soon. So, yes, to answer your question, the offensive line can have the impact on all decisions.
Q. In terms of pressuring other team’s quarterback ?? the team has three sacks this year and last year had quite a few, I think 37 for the season ?? is it a matter of the front not getting more pressure, or are you being a little more conservative or team are just blocking you better at this point?
Coach Willingham: We are not getting as much pass rush as we would like. Then we are careful to make sure that you are trying to blitz and provide that pressure at the right times.
Q. There have been comments mostly from television commentators doing your games and guys in the studio and so forth that have the theory that the talent at Notre Dame is not up to being a Top 25 team. I wonder what your thoughts were on that observation?
Coach Willingham: None.
Q. You don’t have any thoughts?
Coach Willingham: You have heard me say that before.
Q. You’ve said that you play with the players you have?
Coach Willingham: That’s why my comments are none.
Q. The last thing I want to ask you about was your line coaches. Can you talk about their strengths, and also, what the advantage are of having two guys sharing those positions?
Coach Willingham: We made a decision to have two line coaches because I think that is one of most important areas in the football game. I have always said that line play probably dictates more about what happens with a football team.
Q. Having looked at the TV copy of the Michigan State game, it looked like your offensive line actually played a lot better than they have. Do you think that that was the case; that this was the best game that your offensive line has had so far?
Coach Willingham: I think we are continuing to improve. And I will also say, and our guys will say the same thing, there is still much room for us to improve.
Q. Talking to Coach Diedrick after the fact, the offense seemed to open up a little more in the second half. The thing that I guess threw me was he said: “We went into half?time and made some adjustments.” But it looked like Michigan State had done of the same thing as far as blitzing the strong safety as Washington State or Michigan have done to you. Why would that be a surprise for you, and why would you have to make adjustments at half?time on that?
Coach Willingham: I’m trying to follow you.
Q. Coach Diedrick had said he made adjustments at half?time and that’s why the offense had opened up. But since Washington State and Michigan and USC and North Carolina State seemed to do the same thing defensively against you, I’m wondering why the adjustments had to be made at halftime, or did you just not expect Michigan State to actually attack you that way?
Coach Willingham: Well, the first thing is, you are assuming some things that I think are slightly off. Each game, regardless of who you play, there are adjustments that are made at halftime. I think you would acknowledge that.
Q. Sure. Absolutely.
Coach Willingham: Then we were aware of the strong side blitz package. Every team does it different. Do you acknowledge?
Coach Willingham: So we are on the same page then.
Q. I wanted to ask, no coach really likes uncertainty at the quarterback position where you are going into a week with not knowing who was going to start, but it seems that this situation here is probably going to be helped by the fact that, at least when dealing with us, it seems like Carlyle and Brady really like each other and are both pulling for each other. Does that make the situation a little bit easier?
Coach Willingham: I would say this: One of the things that we try to emphasize in our program – the team is first. And the individuals in the program, whether it’s our quarterbacks or any other position, should first and foremost be team players. If they are not, then you definitely have a problem. But in this case, these two guys are team players, and they are interested in what’s best for the Notre Dame football team.
Q. For the players, it seems especially true at Notre Dame where there’s so much scrutiny and so much expectations, do you have to guard against the players not really getting too down on themselves and not realizing they are only three games into the season and there’s a lot of football to be played?
Coach Willingham: I would say, yes, you do have to guard against that, because fortunately, there is only one goal for the Notre Dame program, and that’s to be a National Champion. You have to guard against that. You have to keep your team going forward. You have to keep your team positive. There are still a lot of great things that can happen with the season.
Q. The defensive line, other than the physical nature, and the fact that a lot of kids just aren’t big enough to play that position as a freshman, what makes that position something that kids have to grow into mentally? Why is it a position that usually sees players being that much more successful?
Coach Willingham: I think with our defense and especially with the sophistication that defenses have now, there’s so much adjustment that takes place during the game on each individual play that players are not accustomed to, from high school. So therefore, it is not just the physical side that has to allow a player to participate, but also the mental side and how rapidly they can digest that and make that a part of the system. That is what Victor has really excelled at. He had very few mental mistakes during camp and was able to make the adjustments on a consistent basis within the structure that we have on our defense.
Q. With the quarterback position, Purdue arguably was sort of put back on the national map by Drew Brees, a guy that was overlooked by a lot of schools during the recruiting period. He was considered too small and not strong enough, and yet he did amazing things not only at Purdue, but in the NFL. How do you know a quarterback is going to be successful? What is it that tells you that a quarterback has got that star quality?
Coach Willingham: You know what, I think it’s more guesswork on our part than anything else. We would like to believe that we have all the answers, but we don’t. There is a certain thing inside a kid, a young man, that usually makes him special and hopefully you can see it. But in many case, it’s hard to detect in the recruiting process. And I would say that especially with the increased speed with which the recruiting process is taking now, you’re beginning to recruit sophomores and juniors, and you don’t see their full development as seniors.
Q. You talked about your young receivers and I was just wondering specifically about Jeff Samardzija. He has caught a pass in every game. How do you feel about his progress and do you think he’s going to get more playing time in the future?
Coach Willingham: That will always be dictated by Jeff, and at some point in time, by the other players as to how that situation plays out. I have been very pleased with how he has adjusted to college football. He has not been intimidated by any means. He’s jumped right in, he’s made catches and he’s been an active blocker, and he has understood a variety of positions that he’s been placed in on our different formations and our passing game.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk about the passing game, specifically the quarterbacks. Can you comment on the running game, specifically whether the offensive line has failed to run block well enough? Or do you need to prove to opposing defenses your ability to throw the ball effective to open up the run?
Coach Willingham: Gosh, I think by a week?by?week basis, it could be a flip?flop there. Some weeks you might want to start with your run game and other weeks you might want to start with your passing game to open your run game. What our failure is this year is that we are not executing. I hate to lump your question together with a simple answer that execution is at the bottom line of where we are. But that’s still true – we are not executing well enough in our run game. We are not executing well enough in our pass game. And it starts up front. It involves our receivers, it involves our quarterbacks, it involves our backs and all facets of the game. We are not doing a good enough job in those areas.
Q. Have you seen where the defenses are starting to cheat up, to cheat away from the receivers and more towards the running game?
Coach Willingham: That has always been a part of modern day football in the last five or six years where you get an eight?man front, nine?man fronts where we have to vary our attack and make our adjustments on the box count and different things. We try to move it around and make sure that where the defense is, that you are attacking another area.
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