Oct. 14, 2003
Q. Julius Jones was in a few minutes ago talking about the importance of the game and revenge; he said it’s not something the players talk about, but something he knows is on everybody’s mind. Is that an emotion that you like, that they can look back at last season’s loss?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think what I’ve said in regards to that, not just today, but as a coach, you try to use all forms of motivation. There are some guys that respond well to that. There are some guys that don’t respond well to that. What we have to do as coaches is just find the right button that gets our young man to perform at his highest level.
Q. Does it worry you at all that players try to do too much in this game; you can’t change the results of last year, but that players meet try to do more than they should?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you always talk to the players on your team about playing within yourself because that’s an important part of being successful. Once we get outside of ourselves, we usually have the least amount of control, and control is important in everything that we do.
Q. Was the biggest surprise to you in that game the fact that they were able to amass so many yards? A lot of people thought it would be a close game, but the one thing that they were pretty sure of ?? USC would not be able to get a lot of yards on Notre Dame, but total opposite happened, it was a record day for them, the worst day ever …
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think you’re disappointed as a team and as coaches that anyone has any type of success against you. When they have as much as they did, it definitely disappointed. But this is a new year.
Q. Can you just talk about the offensive line play against Pittsburgh, did you see a significant improvement on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the game illustrated some significant improvement. But the key to that is that we continue to do that, and the key for us as coaches and team is that we continue to work and don’t get the impression or the feeling that we are there. There’s still a lot of improvement for this football team, and especially on our offensive line and really on our total offense. So we have to continue that course, and if we do, then we are fine.
Q. Was the play of Ryan Harris a big difference in that, do you know?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the play of the group was a big difference because I don’t think Ryan Harris by himself can do all that was done Saturday alone, so I think it takes the whole group, and I think the group has had a fine, fine performance. And of course they were accompanied by a back that had a fine performance, two backs. I think Ryan ran the ball fairly well, 80 yards. It was a very productive evening for a lot of people.
Q. Ryan Harris, did he perform as well as you hoped he would?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He performed very well. I think to put a freshman in his first start in that situation against a highly ranked team, I think he performed very well. But again, he still has a lot of room to go and he would be the first to say that.
Q. You’ve always said that regardless of age or experience or inexperience, the best player is going to play. Has Carlyle Holiday improved that quickly as a receiver or do you have to bend that a little bit to get an athlete of that caliber on the field to keep him involved because he is one snap away from being a quarterback again?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. We don’t have to bend that, at all. Part of our coaching is to be able to see the ability in young men and that’s part of the vision that hopefully coaches have. So you have to combine that, with, yes, playing and performing the best. So we know there’s certain things there that allow him to be a great player. It’s just how can we blend that in with our present group, with our team and what’s right for our team and right for our quarterback position, also.
Q. I think the point was brought up over the weekend by one of the announcers that you have a lot of offensive players on your punt and kick coverage team. Are you at all ever concerned about offensive players having to be quote “defensive players” on special teams and make tackles when they should be running down the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. The first thing you look for are the athlete. Are you making statement that offensive guys are not as good of an athlete?
Q. No. I’m saying maybe they are not as good at tackle, punt and kick coverage.
COACH WILLINGHAM: But they probably don’t get as much practice as the other guys but I expect them to be as equally with their athletic skill and ability to do that. Probably the difference is for many of those guys, is just blocking arms.B locking is very similar to tackling, I would believe.
Q. Anthony Fasano played quite a bit the other day. Would you relate what he’s been able to do to get himself into the lineup?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Specifically he’s continued to improve and hopefully distinguished himself with both his receiving ability as a tight end and his blocking ability.
Q. Would you talk about what Darrell Campbell may be asked to do and what you’ve seen from him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you notice the initial stages of that football game, I think Darrell had a tremendous impact on what was taking place, his improvement in the middle created havoc for their offense. And when you can have that kind of pressure, that close to the center of their activity, it is a very disruptive force. So he has been an excellent leader, he has been an excellent practice player and he’s been an excellent game player.
Q. What is Darrell Campbell like off the field versus what he’s like on the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I probably don’t see him off the field as much as some other people than on the field. He’s just been an outstanding young man. He’s the kind of young man that you enjoy having in your program because of the leadership that he offers in your program in terms of the student and the person.
Q. What is the status of Nicholas Setta for the weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is somewhat day-to-day, but I’ll probably expand that and say that Nick will be out this week.
Q. What did you think of DJ Fitzpatrick?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought his ability to step in and the poise displayed was a real plus for our football team.
Q. What’s Nick’s injury exactly?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s out.
Q. What is the status in the preparation with Carlyle Holiday, is he working out 100% in practice as a receiver, or heaven forbid, barring an injury to Brady, is he still working out as quarterback?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Carlyle is receiving the primary practice time as a quarterback. We give him limited opportunities as a wide receiver.
Q. What are you hearing from the fans, getting mail, pro or con?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. I remember Parseghian once told me, he gets mail criticizing the team even when he wins.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I probably say, in this environment, that’s safe.
Q. Do you have many people sending you, literally, plays to use?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Never after Tuesday do they send plays. Usually they do it before Monday. We have got them in the playbook, yes. (Laughing).
Q. What do you see in the USC defense, obviously they stop the run very well, and talk about the challenge that your offense faces versus the USC defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It will be probably as good of a test as we will have this year. They are very quick, up front they are very strong, very explosive, their back ends are skilled, excellent coverage. This is a very talented defense. I mean, obviously they’ve play that way this year, and you can see that. But they are as good as any group that we’ll have to face, without question.
Q. Along the same lines with the offense, you were able to run the ball, do you think you can have the same similar success against this defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I’m like everyone else, we’ll be hoping we can have, but this is a very, very good defense. Gosh, they are physical. They are quick, you just use all of the very positive adjectives you can in describing them. Very, very good. And when they cut it loose, it’s impressive.
Q. As far as your defense versus their offense, last year it looked like they threw it to the backs a lot, their tight endl who will be out on their second string, tight end is now injured, are they doing similar things that they were doing that last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They are doing some of the things. A lot of the things that they do will be adjustments that they will make coming into our ballgame. Some will be not so subtle change-ups they will have especially for us.
Q. How much advantage do you think him coming from a very consistent high school program helped Ryan Harris at a position where freshman rarely play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think any time you can have a background of success, and being the higher the program, the higher ranked the probe, the more success the program has, the more tradition the program has had, it allows for individuals to kind of internalize the concept of the program and take that with him. In Ryan’s case, you have a very bright young man that has very ambitious thoughts about how he views himself and I think that was visible in his play.
Q. Probably an unfair comparison, are there any similarities between him and Kwame who played very early for you at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Kwame at this stage was a lot bigger man. So the size difference, I think Ryan will be where Kwame was when he started at some point. I think Kwame reported with 6’7, 6’6, somewhere, and around 303 pounds when he reported to us, or pretty close to that. Ryan is really growing, and that’s a very positive thing for Ryan, because it really allows him to mature and grow into that type of body.
Q. Looking at USC’s offense a little bit, what are some unique challenges there their tailbacks present with those three guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I have been impressed with all of them but I think it is 21, to me that really jumps out of the group. Not only does he have speed and quickness, but he seems to have kind of an explosive powerful nature to him also. You see him run through a lot of tackles but it is a very talented group, and when you have three guys of that nature, what it does, it puts constant pressure on you because there’s no letdown in that group. They just keep coming at you and coming at you and that’s kind of very similar to what we hope that we have; they just keep coming at you. When you make a mistake, one of them will capitalize on that mistake.
Q. When you look at Ryan Grant and Julius Jones, you’ve talked about the advantage of two different styles of backs and keeping the defense on their heels a little bit. USC can do the same thing defensively, how do you prepare for that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is very difficult because they do offer different styles. What you have to do is just basically have your base plan in place and really execute and just concentrate on the fundamentals, mentally first of all, and physically if you are executing, then you have a chance to make the play.
Q. Quieting Larry Fitzgerald on Saturday, I think most quarterbacks always say you are never going to shut a great receiver down completely, but Vontez has so much confidence, and you have not coached him for all four years but you’ve seen hem for all four years, talk about his growth and what allows him to be so effective week after week.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think No. 1, he is athletically gifted. He has amazing strength, quickness, and the mind to really be a defensive back, that whether you get beat, he can bounce right back. Whether he has success, he can bounce right back, and I think those two qualities allow him to be able to do the job he’s done, with some of the finest receivers in the country. I think that growth has become a part of him because he has listened to his coaches and he’s continued to work and strive to be the best.
Q. Can you talk a little bit, talking to some of the offensive lineman going into the Pitt game they talked about the need to get going, get their confidence back. Can you talk about the job that Ryan and Julius did in helping that line get his confidence back, because obviously any line loves to have its backs run for 300 yards.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think what took place in that ballgame is something that I think I spoke of in some form after the game. There’s a very nice cycle created when you have success, when the back makes a play, the line kind of internalizes that and reflects on and gets energy from it, wants to do their job better. When the line is doing their job better, the backs get excited and they want to do their job better. I think our backs went into this ballgame believing that they had to make something happen, but yet make it happen within the structure of our offensive plays. And I think our line fed on that and our backs fed on the line and it was a very nice cycle for us to create and hopefully we can keep creating that type of feeding frenzy where we are doing some very positive things.
Q. Can you talk about Matt Leinart, his ability to step in? I guess a lot of people might have expected USC to have a drop after after Carson Palmer left, but for a young guy he has done an amazing job of keeping that going.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, he’s very talented and he had an opportunity to kind of see a very good quarterback, probably even better than that in Palmer, perform just a fantastic year. I think there’s also some learning that takes place when you’re that second guy just sitting and you’re watching and you’re learning from someone who is pretty good. But he has done an excellent job of stepping in, not being intimidated by their program or by the fact that he is stepping in.
Q. The past weekend there were several games that fans might have expected to be closer than they were, there were blow?outs in games that were supposed to be closer. Is that a sign of parity in college football, are the days of super programs over?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I don’t think the days of super programs are over. I think there are all going to be some teams that are going to be very consistent and very near the top of the ladder. But I do believe that with, I guess, the three years of limited scholarships, it has changed the landscape to a great degree where it’s going to be a lot more competitive each weekend.
Q. Would you consider Julius Jones a leader now? You said that when he got here that he wasn’t.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I quite said he wasn’t. Obviously in some form, I am hoping for him to develop and take on more leadership which is what I expect from all of their guys. First of all, I expect them to lead themselves and contribute to the every all leadership of the team. Julius, with the way things have transpired in his career has kind of had to regain that spot within the structure of our team. But I think our football team, even in his absence, felt a lot of it and he made himself available to our football team and that was very positive.
Q. In what ways is he a leader on the team now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think first of all, it starts with behavior and what you do and how you practice. He’s leading first of all through his actions, but he’s also contributing in the things he says and how he communicates with the team.
Q. Was this past game the game you were expecting when he came back, not a record-setting game, but really dominating on the ground?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I’m hoping that this will be a part of every weekend for us, but I know that there’s a reason that records aren’t broken every day. So we don’t quite ?? I don’t quite envision that happening. But I do envision a very sound and solid performance from all of your young men.
Q. USC has a quarterback transfer to Purdue, is that something that is the cost of doing business in I-A football these days, it seems like a frequent occurrence. How does that affect the team, and maybe recruiting especially?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I don’t know if we’ll call it an operational expense; I do know that it is not uncommon. It has been done over the years for different reasons. You would hope that a young man would be able to get to a place and be there for all of the right reasons, but also sometimes those things may change in their mind or the mind of the program. It does affect your recruiting because if you expended that time and that energy to place that young person in your program, it now leaves some type of gap there, so you’ve got to find ways to replace that.
Q. It seemed to be, I don’t know, there’s a lot of college basketball, seems like some coaches are reluctant to take transfers, but this also seemed to be really not uncommon that a quarterback would transfer to another school and perform pretty well there, just sort of a gamble on both the school’s part even taking a quarterback in as well as the player’s part?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if you can characterize it as a gamble, just taking the quarterback. I think recruiting is a gamble. I think all of it, to determine whether a young man will go on and do all of the things you hope and wish he’ll do. I think it’s somewhat of a risky proposition.
Q. In the days leading up to the Pitt game, did you see anything in practice that sort of indicated that the team might have that kind of bust?out day offensively, especially in the running game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Not necessarily did I see anything. But it’s something that you are always hoping for. You are always hoping your team hits some type of stride. It was very fortunate against Pitt that we had success running the football, but it was also obvious we had success running the football. We are still working to develop our complete football game, but I said all along, our young men have continued to work, they have continued to come every day with great attitude and great approach to Notre Dame football, and if we continue that, I’ve told them that good things will happen.
Q. Did you see the way the guys came out so well in the first quarter ?? and that’s been missing a little bit; was there more of a sense of urgency going into this game, do you think?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think our guys are intelligent young men and they recognize that it is far better if you can perform it, pull it off, to have your opponent chase you and get off to a great start. So I think they wanted to do that, and to be honest, I think they have been trying to do it other weeks, but yet for certain reasons, we were not successful.
Q. Obviously your faith in this group never wavered through the 1-3 start. Can you talk a little bit about that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, that statement or posed as a question is true. I have a great deal of confidence in our coaching staff. I have a great deal of confidence in the young men in our program and that we recruited young men that want to play championship football, that want to be great students that want to be great people. And because of that, I have all of the belief in the world that the things that we are asking them to do, that they will work diligently toward and they will accomplish at some point.
Q. You addressed the defense, can you talk specifically about their defensive line and why they have been so effective and some of the problems they pose for you guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I must say, that is an easy one. They are talented. They are talented and they play hard and they play well together. I mean, that is a formula for success at almost any program. If you have talented young men they have great size, great strength, great explosiveness and they play well together.
Q. In regard to Julius Jones, when he left Notre Dame, did you feel that he was going to comeback? Or were you just kind of taking a wait-and-see approach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, Julius left me with the impression that he was determined to be back at Notre Dame. There were some things from an educational standpoint and from an athletic standpoint that he wanted the opportunity to try to accomplish. So I felt very comfortable that he would do that and do the things necessary. But it’s always a wait?and?see, also, even though the individual tells you those things, he’s following the plan, but until it really happens, you just have to wait and see.
Q. And were you surprised at his progress or did he just, as it was unfolding, or did he just give you a call when he had finished the work he needed to do and said, “hey, I’m coming back”?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Julius stayed fairly close to the program with his teammates and also on occasions, we communicated to make sure things were going well.
Q. How has Rhema McKnight developed as a young receiving threat for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: From a year ago, he has learned a great deal more about our system and has really worked very hard to have his athletic abilities show within the structure of our system. He has grown in terms of knowledge, he has grown in terms of physical skills and in terms of leadership and expectation of his self and his teammates.
Q. You’ve coached against USC every year you’ve been a head coach, what makes the game special for you and why do you consider it so special for Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you have two outstanding programs that somewhat reshaped college football landscape year, many years ago by starting this rivalry. And because of that, because of that time span and because of the great teams that have existed, you have just the right makeup for a lot of great finishes, a lot of great games and a lot of the national spotlight of these two teams have occupied and because of that, that makes this game very special.
Q. Do you have any hard feelings about the way USC finished off that game last season, scoring at the end of game, even blitzing late in the game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I’ve always said that I don’t coach the opponent. I coach our team. What they do is their prerogative and what we do is ours.
Q. Saturday, he had 33 yards passing and 352 yards rushing, to win against USC, is he going to have to throw those two things more into balance?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I’m doing is praying for our Purdue passing game and our Pittsburgh rushing game.
Q. That would work. That would be balanced.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yeah, we are in agreement there. But no, it’s very difficult to think along those lines when you play because we play with the USC defense. Of course, Coach has done a great job of structuring that side of the ball. We do need a balance because that group again is very talented. They play great defense, they fly around the football, all of those things that you like to see great defenses do, they do.
Q. Not much has been said about the USC offenses but despite the new quarterback and several new players, they are still in an explosive group, can you talk about their offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They are a very explosive group. I have always said that it starts with the rushing game and again they have got three backs that contribute very well to that offense’s ability to be explosive and they have got some receivers, I think in, Williams and Colbert, I think it is, if I’m pronouncing it right. They have got some excellent guys. They have got talent, they have got skill, they have got great a system and they do great things.
Q. The year layoff that Julius took, were you concerned about how far back that would set him in terms of his football, and did he surprise you about how quickly he was able to come back and get back into that sort of shape?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You are always concerned about the physical shape, even though he does have a propensity to work out and keep himself in pretty good condition. I was not worried because of the family structure that was in place. He spent that time with his brother. And his brother, of course was a professional football player, so therefore, you just felt good about that situation and about the training, and the mind, the mental advancement he would have because of being around a young man that is involved in pro football.
Q. Do you think he appreciates football a little bit more now that it was taken away from him for a little while?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you would have to ask him that.