Feb. 4, 2004
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you know, this day has become in most regards to some people, probably the most important day in college football. But I guess I’m one that still thinks there is some value to the games.
This is a process, of course, when you come to this day that is never just an overnight occurrence. It is something that takes a lot of work by a lot of people and I think our football coaching staff and our staff members have done an excellent job this season in putting together a football class. I am excited about the skill level that these guys will bring to us. I am excited about the toughness and also the mixture that I think they bring in terms of being the type of student and person that we want to the University of Notre Dame.
I think in this class, you will see a group of 16 guys that fit the things that we’re looking for in our program. Our young men that want to be great players, young men that want to be great students and also great people and that is what we look for.
So I think our admissions department, our football coaching staff have all done a great job of working together to put this team in place. I will list those guys for you quickly. You have them in front of you, but you have: Abdel Banda, a linebacker from New Jersey; Darrin Bragg, quarterback, from California, San Jose; Justin Brown will be a linebacker, possibly defensive end for us from the Washington D.C. area; Maurice Crum from Florida, linebacker; Tregg Duerson, defensive back, special teamer from Chicago; Leo Ferrine, defensive back from New Jersey; Justin Hoskins, running back from Michigan; Junior Jabbie, defensive back from New Jersey; Chauncey Incarnato, offensive lineman from Ohio; John Kadous, offensive lineman from Tucson; Terrail Lambert, defensive back from California; Brandon Nicolas, defensive lineman from California; Ronald Talley from Michigan; Anthony Vernaglia, linebacker, strong safety from California; David Wolke, quarterback from Tennessee; and Darius Walker, running back from George.
So I think it’s a class that we’ve touched on just about all our positions, but a class that adds a lot to our football team. Of course, the question always arises as who will play, and I can honestly tell you, I have absolutely no idea. Some will play early. Some may play late in their careers. But that will all be determined by what they do on the field.
So I’ll kind of open it up now for any questions that this room might have regarding this class.
Q. What were some of the logistical things or tangible things that made this, the situation that you have in this class, different than your efforts last season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you’re really looking at a progression of three years. I think the first year when you come in, everything is brand new, so you have a different dynamic in that recruiting class.
You have the second year that you’re there, that you’re coming off a great season. People are excited.
You have this year, a season that didn’t quite meet our expectations. So therefore, there’s a different dynamics in working with that class. And that is another reason why I think Coach Mattison, our recruiting coordinator, and our staff, did an excellent job in working through all of the difficulties in putting together a really solid class with some very special players in there.
Q. Coach, what do you say to those who suggest that maybe this class does not rank as highly as some other recent Notre Dame recruiting classes?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, what I would ask them to do is go back and look at all of the classes and review what really happened to those classes. It’s very easy to sit here and say this is not that, measured on today. But what you have to look at what did those classes accomplished, where did the players end up, did all of them graduate, did all of them reach the true potential that they had. If you do that, you have to, first of all, say pause, let’s answer the question of what the class does.
Q. Did you sense at all that the gap after Rex Hogan left the staff had any effect. as Tom Lemming has suggested?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I respect Tom’s opinion for the information he provides. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I don’t think that hurt us.
I thought, if anything, the difficulty of the season may have cast a different light in people’s minds about that, but I think our guys did a great job of working through that.
Q. Are you expecting a couple of more to be added to this list? And also, you mentioned different dynamics of different recruiting years. What did you find challenging in this particular recruiting year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought, as I have always said, recruiting is tough and it doesn’t matter where you do it at, it’s tough. You have to convince an 18-year-old, okay, that something is in his best interests, and sometimes that’s very difficult with the limited experience they have in life.
But I think just the normal process of recruiting, and of course there’s a great deal of negative recruiting that takes place, because I still believe there’s a great deal of envy out in the marketplace regarding Notre Dame.
So I think to work through all of those things, again, I thought our guys did a good job.
I think what I can honestly tell you is that there are two others that we are actively recruiting but I can’t say any more than that.
Q. Your offensive line, you have two signings, was that the number you were looking for, or do you think you would like to get more than two offensive linemen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We committed ourselves to the flexibility of two to three in that area. And you’ll see that in a lot of positions, you balance yourself, give yourself one or two, two to three depending on what the year turns to be.
Q. Justin Brown, he was a name that was out there for a lot of people; is he a diamond in the rough?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we hope so and we believe so. We think that shortly after our insertion into his recruiting life that there were a lot of people that jumped in that boat, also.
So we believe he’s one of those guys that based on his career, having been a basketball player and not devoting himself to football, and finally this year realizing that football might be his calling, he showed up late in a lot of people’s radar. And we think he offers some explosiveness, and as you mentioned that kind of Justin Tuck-like ability, we hope and believe.
Q. Similar question, about Abdel Banda, what did you see in him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we were very fortunate because he was here this summer. He was a young man who participated in one of our educational programs offered by the university. He came over and introduced himself to us, and it was no question that he was an outstanding young man based on the academic program that he was participating in.
So what we began to do was to follow up on him to see if his football matched the person and the personality we thought we saw. It did. It’s raw, it’s undeveloped, but it is a tremendous, I think, a tremendous athletic package there.
Q. With two quarterbacks in this class, how important was it to get two to add to the depth of the position, and with those two guys, what you feel like they can bring?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the two guys are a little bit different, though some of their skills are similar. They both are good athletes, even though Bragg may be a bit more elusive we felt than Wolke. But we think it was important to have two quarterbacks in our system to give us that depth. Because in another year from now, depending on what happens with Carlyle Holiday, his position, you’ve got also Pat Dillingham that will be out of the system. So we needed to get that position back up to speed. So it was important for us to get two.
Q. Talk about the recruiting of the tailback position, Darius Walker and Justin Hoskins?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think in those two guys what they give us from the initial appearance is two guys that can be very explosive. Justin I think was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan, and amazingly so, was Darius in the State of Georgia.
So you’ve got two guys that I think are very well recognized for their athletic skill and hopefully what they give us is the ability to stretch the field hopefully in their explosiveness. Notice I used the word “hopefully” because there’s always that adjustment that comes with every back. I believe those guys will be able to jump in and hopefully have some impact on our team.
They both are not the big, big, bruising type back you see on some teams, but they are what I call great sizes for backs right at about 5’10, 5’11, 5’11 area, and I think good thickness to them so they can be durable, yet at the same time be elusive.
Q. Can you talk about Tregg Duerson and what attracted you to him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, to be very honest with you, it was not the name that was the attraction in Tregg’s case. It was watching him in camp. I watched him move in camp and watched some things that he did and what I said to myself was, “I’ve got to watch him through the season,” because if he lives up to what he did in camp through the season, then he will be a recruit for us.
And in watching this season, it went just that way. I think he had a fantastic season and lived up to what I thought I saw in camp and make him an excellent recruit for our program.
Now, after all that’s said and done, you hope he does have the same ability that his dad has when he was here.
Q. We look at a lot of these lists, how much do you pay attention to who else is recruiting a kid in terms of whether you make an offer to him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you don’t want that to be your guideline, but it is important. You do want to know who is recruiting the kid, because hopefully that rates his ability to a degree.
But at the same time, you want to base your information on what you see from that kid and your true, thorough evaluations of his ability to play and perform in our environment.
Q. What about position and flexibility?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There is a lot of that that takes place. We believe we’ve got the guys spotted at the right places as we bring them in, but at the same time there are the needs of the team that have to be answered and maybe the need of the individual have to be answered. Maybe adjustments need to be made there. Where we have these guys listed right now will be a pretty good place for them to start in our program.
Q. Can you describe the evaluation process, because those following recruiting — maybe you offered a kid way back in May and sometimes kids are offered in November and December —
COACH WILLINGHAM: Some get offered in February.
Q. When do you make those offers?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Let me answer the final question first. You try to make the offer when you have enough information on the young man to feel like he is a match for your program.
The actual recruiting process in some cases starts years and years in advance that you start working on kids to try to develop that knowledge of them and whether they are a match for your system. You try to gather the knowledge through any resource you can; films of high school seniors from this year we recruited, we’ll be looking at those films to see if there are outstanding sophomores and outstanding juniors. You use the Internet to gather information. And as you gather information, then you try to get them on campus because then you get your first opportunity to really touch them. You usually talk about unofficial visits and you progress from there to get more information on them, as much depth as you can, and actually when you’re very comfortable, then you make the offer.
Q. Junior Jabbie, and there may be were others that were prep school graduates, is this something new?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re going into dangerous territory.
Q. Is this a new trend for you, have you done this at Stanford before and what do you like about those kind of players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, the player must meet the same set of criteria. He’s got to meet all of the things you’re looking for in a player. But it’s an advantage for me and the kids because some of them come out not as skilled. Some of them may be late bloomers, and in addition, a year may help them grow, may help them develop, which puts them in a different area. There may be one of a group of schools that looked at them coming out of high school, and after the prep work, another group of schools may look at them because of the new development. It’s not necessarily an advantage for us or the school, but it may be an advantage for the young man.
Q. Anthony Vernaglia, what are your impressions of him overall and can he really play all the positions they say he can?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ll give him every opportunity, but no, he is an outstanding athlete. His father was an athlete at Penn State. He’s got a great background, and we are excited because he does bring that kind of thought process that you can think about him being a tight end, you can think about him being a linebacker, you can think about him being a strong safety. You have those kind of options.
Q. Is what you have him listed here based somewhat on your needs more than maybe what he projects himself?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Combination of both.
Q. Ron Talley is a real confident guy, real interesting guy to talk to. Can you talk a little bit about him and what you see in him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, he’s one of those guys that’s been on our list for some time and we just needed to get the information on him. And with further investigation, having him out here and spending some time with him, we felt like this was the kind of guy that could come in our program and energize it with that confidence that you speak of and the determination.
Q. The recruiting process, because there’s a lot of evaluation that goes on, what coaches are doing, and can’t necessarily talk about it, but if you had to go back, would you do anything differently about this year? Would you change anything in the way that you approach the season, offer people earlier or do anything different?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the key is, again, gathering information. You’ve got to offer the young man at the right time, okay. I’m not inclined to offer someone just because someone else does. I think we have to have the right information, if you want it to be the right mix for the right program at our university.
Q. You said you disliked word “potential,” but so much of this is based on potential. Is the process, you really have to think about kid’s potential when you are recruiting them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I enjoy the process. Recruiting, there’s really nothing like it, sitting today, watching the screen and watching 18- or 19-year-old determine how excited you are or others are about your program. You enjoy that to a degree.
But the potential is what it’s all about and it’s about really coaching and developing young people. Do you want to put your futures just in potential? No. Because at some point you’ve got to change that where it’s got to be production.
Q. Does the processes that you have to follow as a representative of Notre Dame, is that in any way a hindrance in the speed with which that you can offer a scholarship to a player, or are you personally more comfortable with being more deliberate in making offer?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I like being deliberate, No. 1, because I think it gives you an opportunity to get to know the person. If we were some other school, the process might be a little bit easier, simply because you don’t have that academic requirement there. When you have to gather more information, then it does make the process a little bit slower, a little bit more deliberate and I’m comfortable with that.
Q. Is that a disadvantage; do you find that that’s a disadvantage?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It can be with a certain guy and that’s a whole part of gathering the information. There’s some guys that you know you had better get an offer in their hand right away. You try to make sure you do that, you try to make sure you gather as much information as possible.
Q. Is there anything you want to do, that you would promote to the university that would help speed up the process in any way?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, there probably are. We have ongoing conversations about what we do, what we should do and how we can make the process better, that’s always the case.
Q. It seems like every program has a couple of players that were not necessarily all that highly-ranked, but just happened to make an impact on a particular coach. Notre Dame had a kid like that named Joey Getherall a couple of years ago who you coached against. How do you go about looking for those diamonds in the rough that are not necessarily at the top of every recruiting list?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would probably venture to say that most of us would say that the diamonds in the rough just kind of show up. I don’t know if that’s something you can kind of go out digging for those kids. But you hope that through your research that you can find someone that meets what you’re looking for, has not gathered all of the attention that the high-profile guys have gathered.
Q. If you are sort of considering a kid who doesn’t meet the standard five parameters that would fit a certain position, what else do you look for, whether it’s something about them mentally or competitiveness, what do you look for that gives you an indication that maybe there is an undersize kid who might be able to fit or make an impact?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, in that information-gathering process, you try to get as many factors that tell you about this young man. It might be something as simple as class attendance and school attendance. The kid is amazingly tough, he’s resilient, he finds a way to get things done every day. It might be talking with the janitor in the school. It might be anyone that you might not suspect that can provide information and insight into that individual to give you his mind and his heart.
Q. Does landing two quarterbacks bolster a depth at that position, does that allow you to shift Carlyle Holiday to wide receiver and make him more interested in wanting to return for an additional season at a different position?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I’ve said is that No. 1, we need that depth as we start to look down the road so we have to do that regardless of what happens with Carlyle.
What we are trying to do in our program is always gear it towards the best interests of the individual, as well as the best interests of the team. If it will be the best interests to have Carlyle at another position, probably wide receiver, then we do need to get two quarterbacks in place, and hopefully they can come in campus and are such caliber that they can make a contribution and allow us to make a move that day.
Q. Can you elaborate on Ryan Baker, you said earlier you were pleased with the athleticism of this class, but then you mentioned something about toughness. I wondered if you were influenced in some of your recruiting by toughness of players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I can’t speak directly to the young man that you mentioned. That is one of the things that we look for first in our young men. I’m a believer that toughness is a quality that wins football games and that we always want to be a tough football team and we give that as a mental condition first before it is a physical condition.
Q. Could you say what features that Ryan Baker had that attracted Notre Dame to him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay. I can only tell you that we are recruiting Ryan Baker.
Q. You mentioned before about how no one knows how these classes are really going to be until the process is played out, but unfortunately — recruit ratings being what they are these days — do you have to address something about this class, do you have to try to dispel that notion that this is a down class for Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you know, I can’t dispel that. I think when you look at it, that’s not my battle necessarily to fight. I can only explain what I think are the good virtues of this class.
I think we have some young men in here that are some high profile guys. I have some guys in here that have been under the radar that I think will be excellent players. I have all of the confidence in the world that this will be a fine class when things will play out at Notre Dame.
Q. In regards to John Kadous, in your evaluation, what did you see in his ability that made you think he could possibly make an impact on this program?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We always caution ourselves because I think too many times you’re trying to force your guys into positions right off at the initiation of their careers. But what we are hoping for with John is that he has an opportunity to come in, learn our system, grow and develop to be a big-time, big powerful, explosive offensive lineman for us, and that’s what we are hopeful for and I think that’s what he’s geared up for also.
Q. Curious, the Ryan Baker situation, was he just not signed today?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I can only comment that we are recruiting Ryan.
Q. You can’t comment on if there’s a problem or anything like that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I cannot. And please do not interpret that there is, but simply that I can only confirm that we are recruiting him.
Q. But you are still actively recruiting him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Terrail Lambert, what stands out about him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, Terrail reminds me of a young man that I had at Michigan State what I coached as secondary. When you watched him in high school, he was a linebacker, but yet he had all of the toughness, all of the foot quickness to be a great corner. So that transition can be done, so therefore, we look at Terrell and say he has those skills and to bring linebacker to your quarterback position is not a bad thing to happen. So his speed, toughness, the school that he comes from, they produce outstanding players. We think all of those things lead us to believe that we should be very excited about Terrail.
Q. The low percentage of guys that came in for game days that show up on the list today, is that the natural nature of the game that it’s kind of removed from the January/February recruiting process, or how do you look at that situation in the future of judging whether we want to continue to bring a lot of guys in for game day, do you look at that later in December or January?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it depends on your ability to gather information on the individual and what he — for some guys, that is a great time to bring them in. You know, maybe you have them on campus sometimes with some unofficial business at other parts of the year and now get them in for the game day, gives them the whole flavor of what the game is like. So it could be a great thing.
In some cases it’s not because you have that really difficult time management question for coaches and other staff members. We are trying to win a game. We are trying to get ready for the next game. You are trying to recruit a young man, so you have to balance all of that out. I think it’s more in that information gathering area that’s critical; that if we can find out what makes him tick.
Q. Is weather an issue when it comes to negative recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: So you mean no one tells him it gets cold in South Bend?
Q. When it gets down to it, coming off a losing season, is that the most difficult thing to overcome in recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I would probably say yes because the No. 1 thing that attracts guys, they want to win. I don’t think there’s an athlete out there that goes any place that doesn’t want to win. And again, I thought our coaches did an excellent job in recruiting this class because I think it’s a solid class.
Q. I know that in the past, the banquet week has been a big recruiting week, is that by design, do you just want the banquet to be something special for the players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, there’s more to it than just that. The timing of our banquet, we went back another week because of the late game against Syracuse. I think all of that has an impact on what you do and how you do it.
Q. So would it be reasonable to assume that next year the banquet would return to that week for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It very well could be and it depends on the players you’re recruiting. That has a lot to do with it also. If you answered the other question, by bumping up the number that you bring into the season, that’s the number you bring into the banquet, depending on basketball schedules and football championship; you may have to push those guys to January. There are a lot of factors that have to be worked.
Q. A report was brought to my attention, and tell me if this is accurate, that you spent seven hours in one kid’s living room; is that true?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, that’s not true.
Q. Not anywhere close?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There were six kids that I spent seven hours with.
Q. Is that true?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. Gosh, I mean, I don’t think I spent seven hours but I think it might have been seven hours at a school, in a home, different places and I’ve done that with different kids. That’s not unusual.
Q. I wonder what you would talk for seven hours about.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You don’t think I’m any more broader than football?
Q. Is it a matter of, are you just waiting for some faxes to come in, or are some kids put themselves back on square one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t think that relates to those kids. I can’t say a word, but the general process is, if you look at the general process of signing day, different kids sign at different times. There may be ceremonies and different things involved that they are doing here, maybe logistics by parents and different things. There are a lot of factors to factor in. The only thing I can comment on, we are recruiting two guys.
Q. With the NCAA rule, is today a dead day, is it an active day, is it a dead period or anything?
COACH WILLINGHAM: This is a dead period to us, yes. So we can’t — we can’t personally have contact with the kids. You’re still able to call them on the phone, e-mails are still viable. But actual person-to-person contact, I can’t be in the school, I can’t be in his home.