Aug. 9, 2004
The 2004 edition of the Notre Dame football team hits the field on Sept. 4 at BYU. The real work begins tomorrow (Aug. 10), however, when the Irish begin preseason workouts in preparation for BYU and the rest of the 2004 schedule.
Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham held a press conference at Media Day on Monday, Aug. 9, and discussed several topics and issues concerning the 2004 Notre Dame football team. COACH WILLINGHAM: Thank you for taking the time to join us. Obviously I’m very excited to begin this season. I think that’s almost an everyday circumstance for me, because I do enjoy what I do, coaching the game of football and working with the young men I have to work with. There are a lot of exciting things and great prospects for our season and our young men have come back in great-looking shape. We’ll find out exactly how detailed that condition is a little bit later. But I think they are prepared to have an excellent season, do some great things this year. With that, I’ll entertain any questions that you might have. Q. Can you talk about the team’s transition on the field? Has it been more or less what you thought going into this season. Are you about where you want to be in this program? COACH WILLINGHAM: When you talk about any transition, what you’re trying to create more than anything else, I believe, is a mindset within your organization. For us, what we call the cornerstone of our program, are four things: a championship, great academics, great people and having fun. As we move toward those things, we’re getting closer and closer each day to being able to accomplish those things by creating the right mindset to accomplish them. Q. How close are you to your academic standards that you want and the levels you want to achieve in those other aspects? COACH WILLINGHAM: I would probably say obviously we haven’t accomplished the championship yet. Hopefully this will be a good year to do that. Academically, I think we’re moving very close to where I would like us to be with the caliber of person (in the program). I like the young men we have in our program. They stand for all the right things at Notre Dame. Q. What has the change in schedule meant, getting a game on the schedule before Michigan? COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing is, even though I am delighted we have that change in position, I’m very cautious. The reason I say that is because one can begin to believe that that is a change dictated for Michigan. That’s not the case. If we’re thinking about Michigan when we’re playing BYU, that is a very serious mistake. We know if you’re not where you’re supposed to be mentally, good things don’t happen. This is a way for us to start our season with a team that we think is going to be a good football team in BYU. I think there is some changes they made in their program in terms of their own personnel that will make them a little stronger than they were last year. For us it is a good way to start the season and it keeps us on pace with Michigan because they would have had a game before us. And that is probably the critical element. Q. You talked about the factors you strive for in the program. Is it feasible for a Notre Dame football player to have fun when you’re the most closely scrutinized program in the country and live in a `fish bowl?’ Can you really have fun as a player with that kind of pressure? COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, you and I have to have a discussion about exactly what is fun. Once we identify that, then we can be on the same page. But I believe that I’ve never seen a group of 8,000 young people not find a way to have fun. I mean, everything doesn’t have to be – and excuse my reference – it doesn’t have to be Girls Gone Wild, something of that nature. I think you can have a lot of fun in other areas that doesn’t hurt yourself or anyone else. I think, yes, you can have a lot of fun. Q. Can you talk about the guys coming back from injuries, including Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak? COACH WILLINGHAM: What we have to do, first of all, especially with the two that you mentioned, as a coaching staff and as a medical group, we have to be very cautious with guys that are coming back off of injuries. There’s a way you gradually involve them in things to make sure you’re protecting them and give them the right amount of work. We feel pretty good about where our football team is in terms of everyone coming back healthy, but we will be very conscious of what they need to do as individuals to be ready to play. You will see maybe a guy not get as many repetitions early in our pre-season camp as he might have if he were completely healthy. It may even mean a situation where he doesn’t practice particular days. Those are just smart things you do in your system to give your players the best opportunity. Q. October has been a good month historically for Notre Dame football. Is that a good time for you to be able to hit your stride for the tougher games later in the season? COACH WILLINGHAM: If September is traditionally better than October, yes, it is. Any time you have a chance to play at home most coaches will tell you that you have to play extremely well. You have an advantage when you’re at home because there are so many disadvantages when you hit the road. You’ve got to travel, you’ve got different hotels, you’ve got different food preparation. There are a lot of things you encounter on the road that shouldn’t be distractions at home. Hopefully being at home, having that kind of success, catapults you to a very good position as you get into the November part of the season. Q. Getting back to Tuck’s injury, is he ready to go? COACH WILLINGHAM: He is ready to go, but we will be cautious and conscious of his injury and make the right steps there. It’s just the right thing to do. We do that all the time. There are guys with shoulders and ankles and different things during the season that you modify what they do and how much they do. So these situations will be no different. Q. What are your expectations for Brady Quinn in the fall coming off last year’s performance? COACH WILLINGHAM: I think I’ve said this many times, I thought Brady had a good year last year. I thought it was a year he showed a lot of physical toughness, a lot of mental toughness. It was a year in which he learned a great deal. What we’re hoping for him, what our expectation is, is that he can really take advantage of all the things he encountered last year and make him a better player this year. A football team, as you know, modern football is all about the quarterback. But it’s also not about the quarterback, because if no one else does what they’re supposed to do, the quarterback can’t have any success anyway. We’ve got to surround Brady with the right cast, the right things so that each complements each other. Q. What positions would you speculate a freshman might have the best chance of seeing playing time? COACH WILLINGHAM: I always think your skilled positions offer the greatest opportunity on almost every team because usually your skill guys come in physically pretty close to your guys that are already on your roster. So your skill position, receivers, running backs and defensive backs are traditionally the place you look for that to happen. Uur team is probably no different that you could see some guys jump up in those positions. Q. What is the progress of Carlyle Holiday at wide receiver and when will he totally focus on that position and move on from quarterback? COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve already tried to begin that process. We tried to exclusively put him in a position so he can be a receiver because I think part of our responsibility as coaches is to be able to best prepare a young man to be able to make that next step. That allows him to do that by committing his entire time to being a wide receiver. Now, if the events of our pre-season camp lead us in another direction, then we’ll be prepared to make that adjustment. Q. Talk about Ryan Grant. How much of a luxury is it that you’re not throwing an inexperienced running back into a starting role? How much of a luxury is that for you? COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say it is probably as nice as you can get, to think about losing a young man the caliber of Julius Jones that we had and being able to replace him with a guy that you know has already gained a thousand-plus yards in your system. Not only do we know he’s gained a thousand-plus yards, I feel like he’s running better than he did when he gained a thousand yards for us. To me, you’re sitting pretty well. Now, what we’ve got to do is get the two, three and four positions to really step up and even become No. 1 and make Ryan that much better. Q. A lot of written and said over the off-season. How difficult is it to separate yourself from that? COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re speaking of? Q. Speaking more about a lot of the alumni. COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay, just wanted to make sure I’m on the same page. I hear some other things about my golf swing, et cetera. In that case, if you guys have been around this program in the last couple years, you recognize by now that what I focus on is the positive. Whatever is said, you take it and you learn from it and you make yourself and the program stronger. If there were good things that came out of any of those comments, I want to make them an advantage for us. I believe we listen, I believe we look at those things, I believe we’ve done that. But in terms of the pressure aspect of it, if you’re going to tell me that the pressure on Coach Willingham was any different today than the day he arrived, then it’s news to me. Q. Are there some freshman players, particularly in the backfield, that you see taking up back up positions? COACH WILLINGHAM: I like our group of freshmen that are coming in. It’s really going to be interesting when you implement them in the new system to see exactly what they do. We’ve got two young guys coming in that will add something to our system I think pretty quick. Now, please understand, don’t discount some of the guys that are already here, okay? You’ve got Marcus Wilson, Travis Thomas, some guys that I think have grown or are getting better every day. I don’t think you discount them either. Q. You have a situation where you have to get guys stepping up in the receiving game. Who will be the guys you are going to count on other than the guys you’re seeing in the pre-season? COACH WILLINGHAM: Number one, that the entire group has to be a major portion of our improvement this fall. The leadership of (Rhema) McKnight, hopefully Maurice Stovall, some of our younger guys you’ve not seen a lot of, Matt Shelton, Carlyle Holiday, those kind of guys, will really add to that performance. Probably the most exciting part of that group for me is the fact that I think they have a lot more knowledge and feel comfortable with the knowledge that they have. Once you have knowledge and feel comfortable, you can get them to execute. That’s what I’m looking for throughout this group. Q. In the last couple years, you talked a little bit about a catalog or library of knowledge about your system. Is that a hurdle that you think you have cleared? COACH WILLINGHAM: To kind of quantify that for you would be a little difficult. But I think I’ll have a better understanding when we actually play the game. But based on what we did in the spring, I was very pleased with how our guys began to execute the system, the spacing. I often compare it to basketball, running a fast break. Most teachers tell you that you have to hit the lane the right way, you like the ball to come down the center, you like that guy on the wing, you like that guy on the wing, now you got spaces to make things happen. The same thing is true of our passing game. Our guys have to understand, and I believe they are at that point, where we’re starting to understand and appreciate the spacing, the depth, how you execute things to make us a good passing team. And then you got to have the trigger man. I’m excited about Brady Quinn. Q. You talked about staying positive. You talk about the championship being a cornerstone of your foundation. But yet last year, you lost three games by more than 30 points, you lost another one by 26. How can people believe that you can win a championship at this point? COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s always very difficult for fans to have confidence in teams when things go poorly. I think I was riding home, if I might draw some kind of parallel, and I was listening to one of the talk radio shows, and you have to understand I don’t do that very often, but I was listening to it. And this particular host was calling out to the audience for people that had given up on the (Chicago) Cubs and did they learn anything from that. Well, to me you can draw some parallels there, okay? Yes, we got beat. Yes, some of the scores were sizable. But unless we’re wrong, it is truly only one loss. And if we can come back and win this year, then I think that will vindicate everything. Q. It has been a long 96 years for Cub fans, Coach. COACH WILLINGHAM: Are you telling me you have a lot of reason to be pessimistic? Q. Yes, in terms of the Cubs, not for your team. COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay, thank you. Q. Can you address the depth on the squad. Are you happy with the back up positions? Include a little bit of comment about the quarterback position. COACH WILLINGHAM: When you mention that position, I think there are some positions that we think we’re in the right place, and there are other positions that we’re not. There are some great things that Pat Dillingham did two years ago to salvage our football team and keep us going on the right track. But we need to improve, our number twos need to step up. We’re looking forward to this camp and this pre-season of not only giving Pat that opportunity but giving our two freshman, Darrin Bragg and David Wolke that opportunity. Q. I know you can’t discuss incoming recruits. But you had early success this summer. What significance do you place on that? Does it change the approach? COACH WILLINGHAM: The significance I would place on it is kind of similar to the other question back here, about giving up on the Cubs. We’ve held true to what we believe in. Those four things that I mentioned to you, every recruit from the day I arrived to the present day has heard that. It’s something we believed in. That is a foundation for that program. It’s a foundation for how I coach. When you have continuity, and when you have someone that is steadfast in their beliefs, you begin to attract the right people that believe in those things. You’ll find in young people that not only have talent but believe in those things. I think it runs all the way through our program. It’s not something that’s just happening right now. I think it’s something that the young people in our program see, appreciate and want to be a part of. Q. How much is it a part of your job to manage people’s perception of the program? COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, we’d like to be able to, but I think I’m a realist in knowing that I can’t. I can’t manage other people. Sometimes I have a problem managing myself. If you continue to do the right things, eventually people see that. And I think that’s what you build this program on. Those four things I talk about, I have not sat with a parent yet that has not believed that’s what they want for their child – not one. So if you continue to do the right things, good things happen. You surround yourself with the right people, I guarantee you great things are going to happen. Q. Back to the offense, the challenges you have faced past two years in terms of transition, how different maybe the offense was, how long it takes to fully get the team where you want it to be? COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re trying to put a timetable on things, it’s always very difficult. As you know, I don’t like to talk about the transition that this group didn’t have. That’s not what I’m about. But at the same time, there is a learning curve. It’s different for all groups. Some groups it comes faster. Some groups it takes a little bit longer. Has this been longer than I noted, than I anticipated? Absolutely. I wanted to have great success and have everything in place day one, but obviously that wasn’t the case. You just keep working at it. I’m comfortable saying I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and hopefully we’ll be able to see all of that come true this fall. Q. The Big Ten is using instant replay this season and you are playing at Michigan State. Will you be using instant replay in that game and what is your opinion on instant replay overall? COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, we will use that at Michigan State. I’m kind of mixed on that. I think that in all of sport, there’s a human error factor that you like to see eliminated, but you know truly exists. And I think that’s what makes the game special. I think pro football is a great game, but pro football, those guys don’t make nearly as many mistakes as college guys. College guys make mistakes because the game is exciting. Something wild, something crazy is always going to happen in a football game. I guess I’m one to believe there’s always going to be some human error, and as long as the human error is not biased, I’m okay on human error. Q. Do you miss being in a conference? COACH WILLINGHAM: No. There are advantages to being in a conference. I think you have goals you can point your team to when you’re in a conference. But, no, I don’t miss being in a conference. Q. You talked about a lack of confidence being a problem for this team last year. How do you instill confidence and how do you measure your team’s confidence? COACH WILLINGHAM: You see it in how a young man carries himself, how he approaches everything that he’s done. That’s how we’ll see. That’s how I begin to notice. You know what, (Rhema) McKnight has that feeling that he can conquer anybody, he can beat anybody. I’ll start to feel that, I’ll start to see that. How you start to develop that in your players, the first thing is experience. We all feel better about what we do when we’ve done it before. Our team now, we have players that played last year in the offensive line. They have more experience than they did the year before. That would be one way. You do it through your off-season training. You know, if I’m bigger, faster or stronger, I’m more confident. I think I can run through a wall. Those are the steps we have to take, and of course our spring practice is a part of that, having them do it again, having them start to advance as a team, as a group of individuals, to advance toward the goal. Q. Can you talk about your expectations Jeff Samardzija? COACH WILLINGHAM: There are a lot of guys that you’re excited about, and Jeff is one of them. For him to do what he did last year, to play some as a freshman, but then to go on and play baseball, that’s where those other areas where a guy brings some confidence to your football team because he went on the baseball team and had success. That just adds to your team. But I think Jeff will make his biggest contribution because he’s a winner and he finds a way to win. He’ll find a way to make a catch. He’ll find a way to make a play. Those are the guys you want on your team. Q. You talked about trying to be positive all the time. Can you pinpoint an area that you know you’re better in this year? COACH WILLINGHAM: You scare me with that question because if I were that good, then I think I’d be a soothsayer. I would be all of those things that could predict the future. But there are some things. Number one, some of the key areas we have experience, we have more experience than we had last year when we stepped on the field. The fact that you lost four offensive linemen. All four of those guys are in the NFL, that’s a very difficult group to replace, whether they start in the NFL or not. That’s a very difficult group to replace. Not only are you replacing ability, but you’re also replacing experience. Q. I realize each game is important, but is getting off to a good start this year a sign that this program is headed in the right direction? COACH WILLINGHAM: I think our players know that. To really give it credence, to make it concrete, you’ve got to win. That’s what we have to do. I think our players like this program. They like what the program stands for. They like how they’re treated in the program. Winning is what it’s all about. Q. How is the team dealing with the Syracuse loss? COACH WILLINGHAM: With the leadership that we have they felt like, first of all, they let themselves down and they let the Notre Dame family down. And they are very eager to make amends for that. That’s why I think we’ve been really pleased with their work this winter in the conditioning program and what we came out of spring practice with. Now we get to see how all that has come together to take us into the fall.