Sept. 3, 2002
Q. Other than obviously Maryland’s talent and ability to stop the run, after you looked at the tape, what was the source of the problems that you did have running?
Coach Willingham: Well, I don’t know if we’ll ever truly define the source, because when you’re playing a good football team, obviously they do some things that prevent from you having success. But I think the things that we have got to do in our offense, not just running the football, generally eliminate what I call the unforced errors. We have penalties, assignment things, things of that nature that we have to sharpen up a great deal. We have learning taking place, which resulted in some inefficiencies.
I think if we can continue to improve in all areas, at some point we will hopefully be a good running team.
Q. You talked about how many players are injured , that you move on to the next player and expect him to step right in and perform to a high level. Do your players ever express surprise at how much confidence you show in them, especially when, for example, you have a linebacking core that all three of which were starting their first games?
Coach Willingham: No, I don’t think they expressed any surprise in my confidence. This is just what we do. This is the nature of football. And our young guys have been around the game, I think sufficient time, that when reminded of those fundamental points, they understand them. And they have been taught for a long time that when one guy goes down, another guy has to step up and it’s an opportunity. They know all of those things. Every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded of them and not make a big deal about it and the other guy steps in to play.
Q. You were asked about coming through the tunnel — inaudible — at that point you said no. Now that your first home game is right around the corner, have you given that any thought?
Coach Willingham: Well, not a great deal. I think our field staff has probably thought about a little more than I have. When I say our field staff, the maintenance guys that handle the field, they told me they will line up and make sure I go to the right sidelines. So I’m very comfortable with that.
Q. I wondered, I don’t know how much you got to see Powers-Neal in the spring, can you talk about the fall he’s had and his progress that you saw in the Maryland game?
Coach Willingham: Well, as you know, we didn’t get to see a lot of Rashon in the spring. So, first of all, it was nice to see him this fall, nice to seem him work and nice to see him making a contribution, and nice to see him step in and get some plays. He has done a good job of picking up things and adjusting and helping us be hopefully a good running offense at some point. I’ve been pleased with his progress and excited he’ll be able to continue to grow and with experience be much better.
Q. Can you evaluate Omar Jenkins, his play, and what you expect from him this year?
Coach Willingham: I think a great word for Omar would be the word, steady, dependable. When people hear those words, they don’t think of flash and all kind of glamour associated with it. But he plays very steady with what I call a nice air of flash to it.
So, I mean, he is amazingly consistent day-in, day-out. He’s there, he produces, he makes plays.
Q. I was curious, some defenses are a little bit more celebratory when they make a tackle and have a little bit more swagger, and some guys like to talk on the field to the offensive players. What’s your opinion of those kind of things? What do you like as a coach?
Coach Willingham: Class. Very simple. Just class. You like great enthusiasm because the game cannot be played at a high level without a great degree of enthusiasm. But at the same time, that should not exceed the boundaries of sportsmanship, which is respect for your opponent, because that’s the only way you have great competition is if you have great opponents.
Q. Is it kind of fun, having been a Big 10 guy, to play some Big 10 teams and play that style? I think you might have played Michigan State while you were at Stanford and that might have been it.
Coach Willingham: If you win. That’s the only fun there is in it. If you beat them, then it’s fun.
Q. Ineffectiveness in the red zone, inside the 10-yard line, how important is that to get that correct and kind of put your finger on what may have been the problem Saturday night in terms of when you’re in scoring position, you had to come away with field goals?
Coach Willingham: Again, I’ll go back and say that probably some of our problem — not probably, but all of our problems may have been in many cases what we did to ourselves. Obviously, they are a good, good football team .
Q. (Inaudible) … does that make it any tougher to make it go against that kind of player the next week?
Coach Willingham: Well, I guess I hope he doesn’t have that kind of confidence. I hope he feels like it’s time for him to hit a valley now and not a peak. He will be up, and their whole football team will be up. We said week-in and week-out, when we play people, we play opponents. We play teams; that this game makes their season; and we’re playing a team, a university that’s in-state. There’s a great deal of pride that’s involved in this entire state about who wins. This will be a great deal of confidence. His entire team will have a great deal of confidence, and it will be a physical contest.
Q. What do you do now if Watson is healthy, and how much did his friend’s play surprise you, if it did at all?
Coach Willingham: First of all, if Courtney is healthy, he’s ready to go. First thing we have to go is determine how healthy is he. So that’s the first issue that you have to decide and how much playing time can you get and what’s the right thing to do with him.
But no, we are very pleased with Brandon. And if it means Courtney is healthy but not healthy enough to play a game or play an entire ballgame, then we go with the rotation that we have. And anything other than that, we make those decisions game time or when we feel like it’s necessary.
Q. What was your reaction to being ranked? How important is that to you?
Coach Willingham: It is better to be ranked than not ranked. And at this stage of the game, it doesn’t mean anything.
Q. Will you address that at all with the team?
Coach Willingham: They are very aware.
Q. How concerned are you, if at all, about keeping your team on an even keel after a win that has made pretty — resonated pretty strong with Notre Dame fans, media? There’s a lot of type hype, especially with the first home week; and does that have anything to do with the fact that maybe they are not sort of — not available to the media for two days after the game?
Coach Willingham: No, those are related, and hopefully, if there is a relationship, then it works very positively for our football team to stay very even-keeled in their approach to what we have to do.
But the truth of the matter is, we haven’t done anything yet. One game never makes a season.
Q. Do you have any background with Joe Tiller, familiarity? And I just wondered, when you came into the Big 10, did you use any parts of his offense to try to incorporate into yours and have you ever kind of studied his offense?
Coach Willingham: Well, we always steal in coaching — I shouldn’t use that term. We always borrow in coaching, as much as you can to help yourself be successful.
So anything that anyone is doing around the country that works and you believe it can work in your system, you adapt to it, you adjust it, you implement some of it.
But no, he’s done a fine job. I think his background is somewhat of a West Coast background, some of the things he’s done in Wyoming and into the mountain states with Washington State, those people who have done something with the four- and five-receiver sets, no, no, there will be some things that may be similar.
Q. A lot of coaches talk about missing game one and game two, the most — inaudible — do you agree with that and if so why do you think that that’s the week that so much happens?
Coach Willingham: First thing is, I’m extremely hopeful that that occurs and until I do believe it, I think that until you play a football game, that you really can’t simulate in practice, even though we try to do our best to have a high-speed, high-intensity practice, but at the same time, nothing replaces the games. So you get into a ballgame, your kids now adjust on a different level, and it just makes a world of difference.
So I do believe that there is a dramatic improvement between your first and second ballgames, but I am hopeful there will be a football team that continues to improve all year.
Q. Is there any one or two areas that you expect to see the most improvement in that you can talk about?
Coach Willingham: No, I can talk about all of them, but I think it’s just overall. We need to improve in every area. We need to not make so many unforced errors. We need to make better decisions in every area. We need to be more physical. So you can go on and on in every area; we need the constant improvement.
Q. Coaching-wise, is it one of the hardest game things — having gone all of a sudden where you have a week where — you’ve gone from five or six weeks getting ready for one team and all of a sudden you have four or five days?
Coach Willingham: In our preparation, we prepare for the season. It not just preparing for one team. So we have worked all along to prepare our football team for the things we hopefully will not encounter this year, and then you start to fine tuning for each team that you play.
Q. The first game, second week, has one of Notre Dame’s worst record for first-year coaches, they are 8-5, lost three straight now and literally never won a second game under Coach Davie. Do those stats worry you at all?
Coach Willingham: They do now. (Laughter). Can you identify those coaches that did win?
Q. Paraseghian and Devore —
Coach Willingham: I’ll make sure I talk to Ara then. (Laughter).
Q. You talked about the need for improvement in all areas. How can the defense improve on a shutout?
Coach Willingham: First of all, we are playing a different football team. So there is still going to be tremendous area for us to improve. There are probably some areas that we were not tested in versus Maryland that of course Purdue will test. There will be constant improvement, or need for constant improvement. One, defensively, I think we did have tackles so we need to improve in that area. We need to improve our communications. We need to be more physical. There are a lot of things that we can improve defensively.
But I think it is kind of distorted when you look up and you see a shutout and that registers — and you think that everything is right. No, everything is not right. We still have a lot of work to do defensively.
Q. Purdue’s style of offense would suggest that Preston Jackson will play quite a bit — how would you assess their first game?
Coach Willingham: I thought it was a great opportunity for them to learn, get their feet wet, and see what they have to do to be good players in our system. I was very pleased with what they did, obviously, because they blended right into our defense almost seamlessly to help us get the shutout and keep Maryland to almost a — I’d call it, a bare minimum in terms of total offensive yardage. I think that was good.
But I think they in their own assessment would say there are areas they can improve in, communication, in just in terms of knowing our scheme and where they need to be what they need to be doing.
Q. Talk about how pleased the players were with how there were defenders around the ball at all times almost.
Coach Willingham: Well, I think it was obvious, and I would again say, and I think they will say it once they view the film, which we all have now, there’s room for improvement.
Q. What do you remember about the atmosphere at Notre Dame stadium when you’ve come in as an opponent?
Coach Willingham: Gosh, I’ve come in a couple of times. I think I came in when it was the old stadium. I think I’ve been in as an opponent when it was the new stadium, and I’m not one to focus a whole lot on those things, so I’d probably be the wrong person to ask.
But I think most people when they walk out of the stadium talk about our fans from the times we have come in before. It has been a class group of fans. They understand football, they know football and they appreciate good football.
Q. It gotten a reputation of being a little bit apathetic in home games. What would you like to see Saturday and how important is that in terms of creating a home-field advantage for the team?
Coach Willingham: Well, I think everyone, as I’ve always said, plays the role. Our team has a role. They have to do a job on the field. Our fans have a role, and hopefully they will do theirs in the bleachers, and make it very difficult for the opponent to think, to move, to run their system, and allow us that confidence that you only gain when you know that people are 100% behind you.
Q. Talk about Nick Setta and his demeanor. He seems really to think of himself as a football player first and a kicker as kind of a secondary part of that.
Coach Willingham: Well, I laugh at that because I don’t think there’s ever been a kicker that has not been a kicker. You always see some part of their personality as it’s described. But Nick is a little unusual and I think he’s unusual because of his total athletic performance, and that includes things outside of football, you know, his track career and all of the things that he’s done.
So he’s kind of not your traditional kicker in terms of — and I’ll probably be getting calls and letters about this — I think often they are considered flakes, to some degree, but he doesn’t fit that category.
Q. There’s a lot of talk about Purdue’s offense. What have you seen about their defense and the challenge that is presented to you?
Coach Willingham: Well, it’s what I call a mature defense. They have got a lot of people now that have been in that system for a few years, if I’m correct, I think they have about eight starters returning. They have got a safety that has demonstrated he’s one of the better safeties in the country and not only through his play, but through his leadership. So it’s a defense that will be on — I think extremely well to have success.
Q. Goolsby, did you see indications during the spring and preseason that would be a prelude to his fine game Saturday? That he was capable of that type of performance?
Coach Willingham: Without question we saw that. Coach Simmons and Coach Baer and Coach Madison and Walters our defensive coaches think a great deal of Mike. And his play during the spring, obviously, put him in the position that he was announced our starting inside backer, and we think his response in the ballgame justifies all of the confidence that we have had in him.
Q. I think you had 14 occasions on Saturday where you had 3rd and 7 yards or longer. Was that a major concern of you coming out of the game and if so what do you do on first and second down?
Coach Willingham: If we could end up in 2nd and 1, it would definitely improve our 3rd and whatevers.
But you don’t want to be in 3rd and long. And everything you can do to put yourself in a 3rd and short or 3rd as low as possible is a positive. And we’ve always said that an important down for us on offense is first down and the better we do on first down, it means the fewer opportunities we have to be in 3rd and long.
So we are looking at everything, to improve our third down conversion rate so we can be a better football team and hopefully allow us to do more in terms of maintaining drives and more when we get in the red zone.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the factors that led to the success that you had in special teams on Saturday?
Coach Willingham: Well, I think first of all, the No. 1 factor is the attitude of our young men. I think they approach special teams, the understanding that it is a critical element of our success, if we were to have success, and we are very fortunate that we have some outstanding players in special teams.
When you look at Nick Setta, his ability to kick, okay, there’s another day he will make that 56-yarder. You look at Vontez Duff, the ability to ignite the confidence in his teammates that he can return the ball. Those are special people that have great impact. But our overall attitude is really strong about special teams, and if we can continue that, then I think it bodes well for us.
But we are also blessed with a coaching staff that understands the value of special teams and is willing to put some time in it to hopefully make it very sound and very solid for us.
Q. When you look at Seth’s return, people will focus on the blocks that were thrown, but there were a number of decisions made by players not to do things that may have been equally important?
Coach Willingham: Well, they are and we have always said that the decision making of our young men determines whether you will be a smart team or not, and they made good decisions in special teams and he made good decisions on the field overall. If we can improve the decision making process, hopefully we will be a lot better with all of the physical things we need to improve.
Q. You mentioned you thought Nick had a very good chance of making the field goal, but was there any underlying current of, “Hey, I’m going to show everybody on this team, Nick in particular, how much confidence I have in him?
Coach Willingham: No. Because I think there are other times that it may be a 30-yarder that we want to go for it.
In my opinion, the game will dictate what we do. Do I have great confidence had in him? Yes. Do I have great confidence in Joey? Yes. Do I have great confidence in our return game? No question. But the game dictates what you do, and at that moment I thought it was the right decision to make.
Q. Since last off-season, did you or the coaching staff alter anything in Carlyle Holiday’s delivery and mechanics or was his success mostly having to do with getting a chance to throw the football?
Coach Willingham: We are always looking at how we can improve things. I’m not sure how much Coach Diedrick has really tinkered with his delivery, but I will say that Carlyle has worked a great deal, very hard, very diligently to make himself a good quarterback, and I think I heard some of his comments that he was excited about his performance, but yet at the same time believes he has a lot of improvement that he can do.
Q. Could you talk about Kyle or Dan and what you’ve seen on videotape from the Illinois State game compared to when he played last year and what type of quarterback he is?
Coach Willingham: I have not yet focused on his game, just looking at the overall scheme. But when you okay at what he did in the Illinois State ballgame, it is obvious that’s a quarterback of good size, good, strong arm, very confident about his ability to lead that team.
And I think you take that from his head coach, because his coach I think somewhere said that this is a young man that he believes is better than Drew Breeves (ph), and that is a high comment in my opinion — in my opinion, when you have a quarterback that has been a Heisman Trophy selection or — not a selection but in that voting, one of the top vote-getters in the selection process.
Q. We all saw the piece why John Saunders and it’s clear that you recognize the importance of success from society’s point of view. Would you agree that getting a head coaching job of any kind at the division one level is difficult, regardless of your ethnic background?
Coach Willingham: You have to say yes to that because there are only — I think at least at the Division 1A level, what is there, 120 or 117 jobs available.
So, I mean, to have that opportunity is very special. So, yes, yes, yes.
Q. Just wondering if you’ve had a chance to hear about Drew Borchard’s Major League debut yesterday and if you could talk about what type of person he is?
Coach Willingham: No, but it’s exciting news that you would mention that he had his debut yesterday. What did he do?
Q. He hit a home run in his second at-bat.
Coach Willingham: That doesn’t surprise me. Drew is probably one of the most competitive guys that I’ve been around, and he is one of those kind of special leaders as a quarterback that he would kind of — if necessary, grab the lineman by the face mask and exactly tell him exactly what needed to be done. And he could do it in such a manner that it just commanded their attention, and you have very few guys that can really rattle a cage like that.
So his stepping up in his debut and hitting a homer in the second at-bat does not surprise me at all.
Q. Lou Holtz got in trouble for rattling the cage.
Coach Willingham: I thought he got in trouble for choking the official.
Q. Well, whatever it was. (Laughter). Anyway, my question is, with Purdue being a basically West Coast offense, would that help your defense in reparation from their practice against your own offense?
Coach Willingham: I think it helps us with some knowledge, but I think you have to really look at the personnel that Purdue has, and they have not announced any quarterback. They have added, I think, the dimension that really makes that offense special, with a great runner, and when you have that combination and then you can have the receivers that surround it, it really makes it a potent group.
So I mean, we will focus, I think, our attention early on seeing if we can not let them be a multi-dimensional offense. So if we can reduce them down to one dimension and allow us to focus and concentrate on that and hopefully allow us to have some success.
Q. What does Vontez bring besides being an explosive back who can bring the ball back to the middle like he did on Saturday?
Coach Willingham: Vontez, I think is probably one of the better corners in the country. And I think we are very fortunate to have both Shane and Vontez as our corners because I think they allow you to do some things that can give your entire defense confidence. So they can make plays either as return guys or as cornerbacks, as you saw in Shane’s case where you had three interceptions for the evening.
But Vontez is a physical corner that place the ball well and that’s exciting to have those two guys on the corner, especially in Vontez.
Q. How about as a leader, maybe in the locker room?
Coach Willingham: He is excellent. I think his growth, and really the growth of our entire football team in the last six months has been tremendous so he brings, I think, locker room leadership, on-field leadership and just great field play.
Q. You get to see a lot of cool things as a coach. You can see players overcome a lot of elements, injuries and transitions from new positions. Can you talk about Arnaz Battle and the fact that he came out and responded against that game in Maryland?
Coach Willingham: I think Arnaz is kind of writing a special chapter for himself in terms of his career and what he’s done. If we are so fortunate to see him really cap it off with a great season this year, which we anticipate, I think it would be one of those really special stories of a young man that had a great deal of adversity in his collegiate career and really fought through all of it and finished on top.
Q. Assuming you were speaking the pep rally and luncheon on Friday, wondered if you did anything at Stanford similar to that, and did that cut into your preparation time? How has your first week been with that?
Coach Willingham: I guess the first portion of that is, yes, we have done things similar to that. We had luncheons for our home ball games at Stanford. We didn’t have pep rallies every week. We usually had our pep rallies surrounding the big game, which was our final game of the year. So we have done that; I’ve done that.
Does it cut into your preparation? Anything that takes you off the field or away from the video does affect the time because it’s about time that you have to do certain things. But does it personally cut into things? No, from that standpoint.