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Coach Willingham Press Conference Transcript

Aug. 15, 2003

JOHN HEISLER: Welcome to Notre Dame football for 2003. Here is Coach Willingham.

COACH Tyrone Willingham: First of all, gentlemen, before I start to entertain your questions, thank you for taking the time to come to Notre Dame, come to our media day. I and our coaches and our players are very excited about the start of the 2003 season. So far we’ve been at work now roughly four days, four practice sessions. Today should be our fifth practice session.

Things have gone well. We’ve managed I think the heat fairly well and are really eager to kick it in for what will be our two-a-day process, (inaudible) be our new two-a-day process starting tomorrow morning.

I’m open to any and all of your questions to the best of my ability.

Q. What are your coaching plans for Julius Jones?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: First of all, we’re excited to have Julius back. What we do in our program is try to let our players decide all those issues. We have to provide opportunities. We think during our normal practice structure, we do that. We’re eager to see what our young men will tell us.

We’re pleased with Julius to come back, and we also have Ryan Grant, who rushed for near 1100 yards, and also Marcus Wilson. We have some backs that we’re pleased with. So far in camp they’re all doing a great job.

Q. You talk about trying to simply win the first game, but what about your expectations for the whole season?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: To be very honest about it, it doesn’t take very much I think for myself to consider our expectation for our team. I think you’re aware the focus for me so much is so much just one game. I usually kind of describe that, if we can win the next game we play, and the last game we play, we’ll be in good shape. So that is really our focus.

But in order for us to do that, it’s important that somehow we consider an attitude on our football team that each individual and collectively we’re being simply the best we can be. If we do that every day, the accumulation of both days will give us what we want which will lead us to be well prepared for that first ballgame. First ballgame then leads into the second ballgame, and then hopefully we can have a great run.

Q. Have you considered that Notre Dame recently has had a string of one good season and then one not so good season?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Well, until you mentioned that fact, I hadn’t looked or noticed that cycle. So for me, it’s not anything I worry about. You know, what has happened in the past does not indicate what will happen in the future. We believe that we control that. If we do a great job coaching, our young men do a great job playing, we’ll have success.

Q. How much further along do you think these young men are in the system than they were a year ago?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I don’t know if I can put a percentage on it or rate it along that level. But I am very pleased with how our team has come back in terms of, first of all, physical conditioning. That means they understand how we practice, how we go about doing things. They’ve been well prepared there. I think our strength and conditioning coach has done a great job in getting them prepared.

But also understanding the system, okay, which is our offense, our defense and our special teams, they seem to have a better understanding. You can see that each day I think in their rhythm, how they pick things up. We’re a little farther along than we were one year ago at this time.

Q. How much further into the play book are you compared to last year?.

COACH Tyrone Willingham: The whole key is how you execute each individual play. To be very honest with you, I would love it if we only had one play in our system. That sounds strange, that you only want one play in your system. But if we had perfect execution of that play and our opponent could not stop it, I’d be very happy with that.

Q. You mentioned players coming back in good shape. Does the new NCAA regulation coming down on pre-season workouts, does that make it all the more important?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: You know, I don’t have an answer for that one. I say it in this light: until we’ve gone through it and really experienced what the new format is, it’s hard to kind of measure the past with what we’re doing today. I think once we get through it, then we’ll be able to look back and speak to the NCAA about adjustments we think need to take place, if there are any, then how it impacts what we need to do coming in in relationship to the past.

Q. The Big-10 is thinking about going to the instant replay on a limited basis. What are your thoughts?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: First of all, I heard that. I think the overall objection to that has been the cost not of all the schools but particular schools within college football that may not be able to afford what it takes to put that system in place.

Anytime you can get the game better officiated, you have a better game, we believe, provided you don’t slow down the tempo and (inaudible).

But I am one to believe that the game, like all games, involve human error. We hate to see it at the hands of officials, but human error is a part of the game.

Q. Do you have any motivating thoughts for the team? Pre-season calculations, Notre Dame is good, but still not that good. That seems to be the sort of gist in the pre-season analysis.

COACH Tyrone Willingham: That we’re better?

Q. Better but not great yet.

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Gosh, not knowing what great reporter wrote that story, it’s difficult for me to respond. But I think I could imagine that at some point last year, Ohio State was not projected to be the national champion. I think they surprised even the most stern critic of their program.

So maybe there’s a shot for somebody else to do something along those lines.

Q. Could you comment on your offensive line for us.

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Number one, I’m excited about the young men that we have on our offensive line. I think they have, within the structure of our football team, one of the ultimate challenges that we face this year. Anytime you lose four young men to the NFL, those are major losses.

But I think our coaches and the young men themselves will rise to the challenge of preparing and getting themselves in position for us to have a very solid offensive line. Of course, they’re in the system for another year. So, of course, all of those things help us and help us to have a very good group here.

Q. I know you like to take things one game at a time. Overall last year do you think your offense will be a bigger part of your success this year?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I think I can say it this way. I would add an opportunistic offense also. I think our offense did some great things. Produce a 1100 yard rusher, I think that says something, that there’s some good things there. Do we have to be better? Yes, we have to be better on offense, we have to be better on defense and we have better on special teams. The schedule we have is challenging, to say the least. Some of the best teams in the country are on that schedule.

So we have to be better in every area. The better we play offense, the easier it makes our job on defense. The better way play defense, the better it makes our job on offense. We want each of those areas to complement each other.

Q. Some of the players suggested you really don’t want them to talk about last season…?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I don’t think there’s any problem about talking about last year. I think last year speaks for itself. It was a good year. But at the same time if your mind is on last year, it’s very difficult to exist in the present, okay? You can’t be in the future. You can’t be in the past. You have to be in the now.

So for us as a football team, we’re in the now. We have a much better chance for success. So it’s not an issue of not talking about last year; it’s just an issue of being focused on what you have to do today. And this football team has a focus on this year’s schedule and this year’s opportunities that are within that schedule.

Q. Is there an area that concerns you about this team?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: All areas concern me about this team. That’s what you do as a coach, okay? You worry every night about every aspect of the game because the one thing you know that at any moment something can go wrong in any area, so you are constantly trying to prepare yourself so that you don’t have any breakdowns in any area.

Q. I know who don’t like to look ahead, but how about the schedule as a whole?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Well, since you provided me a nice out there, by not looking ahead, okay, I won’t. You’re always concerned about your first ballgame because that gets you off. You want to get momentum. You want to build into the season. So we’ve got a heck of a first game we think with a pretty good opponent in Washington State. If you want to add more to it, Michigan follows that, another pretty good football team. I think that’s where our focus is, what we have to be concerned about.

Q. How good can this team be?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I think if this team executes and does all the things that it has to do, is lucky, makes things happen in a timely manner, this could be a good team.

I knew you’d love that (laughter).

Q. How far along is Carlyle compared to last year?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I think the key thing a quarterback in the system has is his ability to really start to understand the system because when you understand the system, then you start to have flow in terms of your execution. What we’re starting to see now in Carlyle is that flow, that timing, that rhythm for our offense, that rhythm in our passing. And that’s important, because great passing football teams, it’s just not run down the field and deal with the defenders, it’s based on timing, okay? You know in the league, I think the league competition, the teams that we play, there are going to be great defenders. You have to do things in a rythmatic manner, in a timely manner with great execution to be successful.

And he’s showing those signs, as I think all the quarterbacks are. I’ve been very pleased in what they’ve shown in the initial stages of our practice.

Q. I understand a great number of the players had time to spend together on campus this summer. Have you sensed benefits that time together?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I would have to say yes to that. It’s not just the time they spent together, which I think is quality time for the most part, but I think it’s also being in the system and having understanding of what’s expected of you, okay? I think all that brings is part of that bonding you want to have as a football team.

You know, of course, I think we have some very fine leaders on this football team that help that process. So the aging, maturing, leadership, being together, all are helping us to make us a more cohesive football team.

Q. What happened to your team once they got to 8-0??

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Once we were as good as our record showed, we didn’t seem to have that same fire.

My answer to that is we still played some very good teams at the end of the year. I think when you look at the teams that we lost to, okay, except maybe one exception to that, the exception of Boston College, they played a very good game. You could probably say North Carolina State was one of the better teams in the country, you could probably say that USC was one of the better teams in the country. I think the teams we fell to were still very much quality football teams. I have some difficulty in saying that they didn’t have that edge.

Now, if you expected us to have 10 turnovers, that we would recover and score off those in every ballgame, it’s not going to happen against good football teams. Okay, we’ll get some, we’ll create some opportunities, which I think we did in some of those ballgames. That’s not to say anything about the early part of the schedule, because there were some good teams there also.

Sometimes it goes for you, and sometimes it does not.

Q. Can you talk about the offensive line and who you expect to see there?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: I’ll try to list them off to you to the best of our ability. I think right now at center we have Zach Giles and Bob Morton being the primary competitors for that position. We have Sean Milligan at guard position, Dan Stevenson at tackle position. We have Mark LeVoir at point guard and Jim Molinaro at the tackle position.

There is no question that Molinaro, Milligan (inaudible) have to take the bulk of the leadership. What we expect in our football team is leadership from every player, not just a senior because he’s a senior.

I think the bulk of it will come from that group and that’s where we’ll have to — that group will have to form our foundation for our offensive line.

Q. How about the depth at linebacker?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Well, as always, when you talk about depth, you take it anywhere it can come from, as long as the players meet the quality of play you’re interested in. I think you’ve heard me say this before, that it doesn’t matter to Coach Willingham who plays. We’re only interested in our best player being on the field because it gives us our best chance to win.

So we expect our freshmen, sophomores, anyone that can step into that position, to have that opportunity.

Q. What is your assessment of the physical condition that Julius Jones came into camp at? What’s toughest, the physical part of the game after a year away, or the mental things?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Of those two, I think probably the most difficult will be the mental because you’ve been away from what I call active participation in the game of football. Of course, active participation in the season. I think that will be the most difficult one for him to get himself into.

But I was very pleased with Julius’ physical conditioning coming back. Obviously, he looked very strong, he’s very healthy. His cardiac — cardio conditioning was also very strong. I was very pleased with that.

Q. What do you look for from Vontez Duff?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Well, I think when you mention Vontez Duff, I immediately move away from the game of football. It’s strange that a football coach moves away from the game of football. But I think he has a very special love of life, special enthusiasm he brings to the game, okay? And because he has that, that allows him to really work and drive himself to a level that some guys can’t reach.

So he is in great condition. He has a knack for being at the right place at the right time, and he has a great sense of body positions with his return game and special teams.

So when you can put that together, love of life, enthusiasm, that ability to really see and create special body positions that he can work off of, you have a guy that has a chance to make good plays. Of course, he did that for us last year.

Q. (Inaudible) Corey Mays, can he compete for a starting position?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: As you know, we’re always open to any player. If he takes the responsibility and plays best, he becomes a starter for us.

Corey has not in the last year or so played a great deal of football for us. So it’s really exciting. I think he was out this spring. It’s really exciting start to have him back and start to work him into the system. But we’re looking forward to seeing what actually he really brings to the team.

Q. Tell us about Courtney Watson?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Well, first of all, I think the nominations, being a finalist last year for the Butkus Award speaks to the quality of play that he brings to our football team.

But I think I said this somewhere early in the year last year, and I think it was — might have been the Kickoff Classic game that all of a sudden Courtney was ill, missed that ballgame, if I’m correct, that immediately what you saw was the absence of a leader and an understanding of everyone’s involvement in our defense.

When you have a player that has that kind of understanding, can get everyone in the right position, is a fine player in his skill level, what we ask of him, now you have a chance to have great leadership and great apply. Courtney provides this football team with that.

But what is also so exciting about Courtney is that that leadership doesn’t just exist within our football team; it also exists on this campus because of his involvement with different organizations on this campus. That is (inaudible) in the program.

Q. What are your expectations of the kicking game this season with Nick Setta both punting and kicking?

COACH Tyrone Willingham: Just from a coaching perspective, okay, from a coaching perspective, you like to have two guys in that role at all times. What I understand, the leg action of those two kicking motions is slightly different. So from a coaching standpoint, you say, “Well, ideally I’d like to have it this way.” But what Nick has already shown, he’s already shown us in early days of camp that he has the ability to handle both of those if he’s called upon to do that. So that’s where it’s exciting.

To get to your other question, what do we have to do on our special teams, I think it’s difficult, but that’s the first thing you start with. We said we need to identify a long snapper. We need to go out and find someone to replace John Crowther, who had that job for us a couple years. We need to identify that position and then we need to put that whole team together from a standpoint of being able to punt first, cover, and then do all the other things that they have to do, those are the things that we have to identify. We have to make sure we have in place to be a good team on special teams.

If there are no other questions, I will be around. I know always within this group there’s someone that has that special question that you cannot ask in front of the other reporters, okay (laughter)? I will be available for that one question. Thank you.

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