Sept. 14, 2004
An interview with:
JOHN HEISLER: Couple quick notes. Kickoff is going to be at 7:07 at East Lansing, that’s 6:07 in South Bend. Questions.
Q. What are some of the characteristics of the Michigan State team that has made it so difficult for Notre Dame to beat them here in the last seven years? I know you’ve only been part of two, but I’m sure the characteristics have carried over.
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I would say is that Michigan State believes that it plays its best football against Notre Dame. That belief has been passed on going back probably many, many years, that they just feel like that is a game they play great in.
Q. Is that a characteristic of the program when you were a part of it as a player?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That was a part of the process, very much so.
Q. The thinking has always been around Notre Dame that the two most physical games on the schedule are Michigan and Michigan State. Is that still the case?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that, without question, those two ballgames will be two of the more physical ballgames you play, especially the Michigan State game. As you mentioned, I have history with that game. You know what’s said in the locker room, you know what they think, what they want to do in that particular game.
Q. Does Michigan State recruit to that type of style of player, I mean, a player that may be a little bit more physical than the average football player?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t think so. The whole key is where your mind is at. That’s the whole key. So when you are thinking a certain thought process and you have confidence in that thought process, you play to a certain manner, to a certain level. And I think for Notre Dame, that’s the way Michigan State plays.
Q. Could you comment on the performance of your interior defensive linemen up to this point? I think your Top 3 guys are Greg Pauly, Trevor Laws and Derek Landri have combined for 21 tackles already at those two spots, which is a pretty high spot at those positions at this stage of the year. Could you comment on how they’ve performed up to this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The play in that threesome, and we’ve tried to alternate them fairly equally, I don’t know if the numbers indicate that, but first of all we have a great deal of confidence in each guy, that they can step in and play to a high level.
When you talk about having a successful defense, it usually starts right up the middle. If you can have great play in the center of your defense, then you create havoc, you cause things to happen, you make it better for your backers, you make it better for your ends, you make it better for the secondary. Those guys have done that. Their play has been good, even though we want it and expect it to be better.
Q. You said a freshman might get a little playing time this week. Were you surprised how much you used (Darius Walker)? Was that a plan or did he earn it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I thought his play really dictated what took place during the course of the game. I felt all along at some point this year he would have some impact on a football game and this one turned out to be the perfect debut for him and for our football team.
Q. Is the biggest problem for someone this early in their college career just learning? I think he wasn’t in there for passing situations.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re not supposed to say that (laughter).
COACH WILLINGHAM: The most difficult thing, when you talk about a passing offense – and this is everyone involved – is the word “protections.” In high school, in most cases, they only had one protection. Maybe it was a play-action pass, and you got one responsibility, and that doesn’t change based on the defense very much.
At this level and the next level, the complexity of protection is huge. What you see, learning to adjust to that, visualizing, seeing all the right things, identifying all the right people, and then to be able to physically do that is a little bit different.
I don’t have any idea what Darius had to pass protect against in high school, but I know it wasn’t a 246-pound middle linebacker.
Q. Do you go into the game this week expecting him to have more of a role than last week’s game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re not sure yet. It will all be dictated by our game plan and how our guys practice, et cetera. There are going to be a lot of things that go into that decision before we get to the weekend.
Q. Anything about the way he performed surprise you? Did he show you anything that you hadn’t seen in practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, no. It was just about what I expected to see from him.
Q. Third time going against Michigan State. Is it still a little special playing at the alma mater or at this point is it just another team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s not just another team. I’ve got some pretty good memories from my days at Michigan State. You have a fondness for that, you have a fondness for the University and you have great respect for it.
But, once again, when the official blows that whistle, there will be no thoughts about the fondness of Michigan State.
Q. The Big Ten offers instant replay this year. You as the visiting team have the choice as to whether to have that or not. What is your choice for this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve agreed to it. I’ve been overall pleased, especially with the start we received this year from the officiating of the Big Ten crews. I think they’ve done an excellent job.
If it assists them in doing their job better, then I’m all for it.
Q. Was there instant replay when you were in the system in the NFL during that time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, you’re going back to ’91, ’92, ’93. I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
Q. Just seeing if you had dealt with it before.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I practiced against it every Sunday (laughter).
Q. Talk a little bit about Darius (Walker) and the development? You didn’t play him at all in week one. What happened differently in week two practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Nothing.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Nothing. It was the right time.
Q. How do you get a guy like Carlyle (Holiday) ready to go back there and return punts after he played quarterback for nearly four years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That was really a pretty easy one. That one wasn’t really difficult at all. I don’t think it required anything on the coach’s part.
If you know Carlyle’s history, I think he at some point played baseball and the ability to catch flies is not that different than the ability to catch a punt, to some degree – except you don’t have a glove. If you have those ball skills, it’s pretty easy to go back there and do it. He wanted to be back there, he wanted to go back there and have success. Again, you’re just bringing him along at the right time.
Q. Would you consider using him on kickoffs?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s a possibility. You have to look at styles, styles of runners, things of that nature, in who will be the appropriate guy to handle those roles.
Q. Is that a position where a guy either has it or he doesn’t, fielding punts?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends on your team a little bit. There have been teams that I’ve coached that the only thing you needed that guy to do was just make sure it got caught. And if that’s all you need, then you got to find a very secure guy. You’re not looking for the runner at that particular time. You would like to have it, but you don’t have it, so you use the skills available.
There’s certain skills that can be developed there. The great ones are always special. They always have qualities that no one else has. But I think you can develop guys to go back there and be very good punt returners.
Q. Isiah Gardener is not listed on the roster on this week. Is he no longer a member of the team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is no longer a member of the team.
Q. Can you expand on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I cannot.
Q. What did you see maybe in Darius (Walker) this fall that kind of let you know that he could help you this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I had the opportunity to watch his style, watch his ability to see things, and just make yardage out of things that didn’t seem to have much yardage, so you knew then that that is not based on just his skill but his ability to see things.
And he sees things just a little bit different than some other backs.
Q. Now, when you talk about maybe the situation, that the timing wasn’t right, playing him in a season-opener, did that have anything to do with being on the road at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There were a lot of things that I considered in that situation. So I tried to factor them all in. I think I deduced that the best opportunity was last week against Michigan.
Q. Will you expand maybe on some of the factors?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Nope (laughter).
Q. How you doing, coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends (laughter).
Q. Will you tell me after this line of questioning.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Probably not (laughter).
Q. I was curious what other freshmen you might be considering that could help you this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In all honesty, I’m considering all of them. It depends on their development, how fast it comes, and at what point of the season.
There is probably a point, probably about Game five, Game six, that it may not be advantageous for us to consider if they haven’t played at that point.
I’m still looking at every guy on our roster to find a guy that can help us and make a contribution to us winning. And some people have reservations about that because you say, “Gosh, a guy only got in, Coach, for maybe 30 plays, his year was wasted.” You know what? If those 30 plays help us win games, then it’s the right thing to do.
Q. How about your philosophy about freshmen on special teams? Is it that equation where burn a year or…
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t look at it as burning a year. If a guy plays, he gains experience. He understands how to get himself ready and prepared for a football game. And I think that’s very precious. So I don’t see it as burning a year.
Would you like to get more time out of him, maximize that time?
Absolutely. But that time he plays will be invaluable.
Q. With a guy like Darius (Walker) coming in and all of a sudden the spotlight is so big, a few people in the media have interviewed him here and there, then all of a sudden you have a big crowd around you, a lot of demands. What do you as a coach feel is your role in terms of helping to nurture that situation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, you want your players to have as much spotlight as they can. That’s important. But you want to balance that with their understanding of what it takes to actually have them have that kind of spotlight and have that kind of performance. So we will do the same things with Darius that we do with every member of our football team in this particular situation. We will make sure he understands that every yard he gained, it took 10 other guys to help him do it.
Q. I mean, even the crazy stuff that happens off the field, too, do you as a coach talk to them and say, “You might be getting people knocking on your dorm in the middle of the night, wanting your picture”? Do you address those kinds of things or do you let them figure that out themselves?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That one they would have to do on their own (laughter).
Q. How do you think Darius is handling it so far?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We don’t know. I mean, you’re only talking about, what, 24 hours, 48 hours? We’re just getting started in this process.
Q. You spoke in the beginning of the season of the confidence of the team. Was there anything special that you and your staff did during last week’s practices to reaffirm that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, we stayed the course more than anything else. We have always believed in our football team. We believe in their ability to do things. I’ve been on record as saying that at some point our offense will start to step up and will start to play better. We’re still not there. We still have a long way to go before we can beat a team that I would hope and expect we can.
No, we stayed the course. We believe. We’ll keep working hard every day to be the best team we can be.
Q. What are some of the factors that went into you going for it on the fourth and goal?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, you have to have the belief that you can make it. There’s really no other reason to start that process.
When you look at it, if you did feel at that stage of the ballgame, feeling that our defense was playing well, you felt you could hold them in that area. That’s also a drill that we practice called “backed up,” that we practiced, trying to hold an opponent in that territory, forcing them to punt. Now we’ve got a great field position. We’re right back at being the aggressor. So we felt like those things could take place.
Are there guarantees? No. But hopefully they could take place and we could keep the pressure on them.
Q. Could you talk a little about Maurice Stovall in terms of the mental strides like you feel he’s made so far this season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Maurice Stovall is playing very, very good football. What is very good football for me is just that he’s giving absolute effort. And you see that not just in his receiving abilities, which he’s made some key catches for us this year, but you see it in how he’s contributed in special teams, blocking, all the other areas.
He’s playing excellent football.
Q. After the first game at BYU, I think he had three penalties, do you sit down and talk to him about that, encourage him to stay aggressive and try to not necessarily forget about it, but don’t let that hinder his instincts?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely. And that was probably more his coach that took the leadership in that, Coach (Trent) Miles, that really just addressed those things.
But, no, we love it when you’re aggressive. That’s the way the game has to be played. And he’s doing that. He’s being a great leader for our team, he’s making big plays.
Q. Have you seen him become more vocal in many ways this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say yes, I think he has. He stepped that up as well as his physical leadership. That often comes with maturity. It comes with the absence of others to do it because now you say, “It’s my turn, it’s my responsibility.” So he’s doing an excellent job there also.
Q. You were asked about Brandon Hoyte last week. On media day, you talked about character as one of the cornerstones of what you want this program to be, academics. In many ways, does Brandon maybe symbolize what you want this program to be about?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Brandon is just one of the many examples we have of young men that are, in my view, completing the mission of Notre Dame, which is not just to be excellent athletes, but also to be excellent people and excellent students, and to provide leadership in the community. His Tackle The Arts program, that Brandon was a part of this summer, some of the other guys, is a marvelous way to enhance this community. And they continually do that.
So, yes, he is one of those guys. Hopefully it is a model that you’ll see many times over on our football team.
Q. Do you see him as a guy that a lot of other people look to on this squad, not just linebackers, but across the board?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you make some of the hits he’s made this year, you get everybody’s attention.
Before you go, I am going to present you with your own depth chart.
Q. Can you sign it for me (laughter)?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Only you and I will have copies of this, okay? So I wanted to make sure you had one. It is the same one I get, alphabetical and numerical, so you will know.
Q. Thank you very much (laughter).
COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay.
Q. Some of the emotions you showed on the sideline, I know those are spontaneous. Do you get a sense that the players need to see that from you from time to time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Because my players see it from me all the time. Every day we practice, every day that I’m with our guys, they sense my intensity, my love of life, my joy for the game of football. So I don’t think that’s missing.
Now, do you say other people need too see it? They might. But usually if they do, they’re missing the game.
Q. You talked about how important body language is to kind of gauge someone’s state of mind. A couple of guys said it was great to see that from you, even though they do know the passion you bring to the game and practice. Can you talk about the impact that body language has coming from you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think that if you are the leader, then everything I do sends some kind of signal and is received in some manner from our players, and as you noted from fans also. But it’s always nice to give those players what they need.
Q. How does Darius (Walker)’s performance last week impact the running back position at this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, we’re still early, okay? We’ve got a lot of growing to do in Darius, we’ve got a lot of growing to do in our back field. Hopefully performances like this clear the air a little bit and starts to stack things a little bit so you know who you can depend on.
Q. Of course with Ryan Grant coming back, how does that impact this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If we were probably healthy today, (with) Darius, Ryan, Marcus (Wilson), Travis (Thomas), I would probably start Ryan.
JOHN HEISLER: We’ll take some questions from the telephone.
Q. Obviously, people down here (in the Atlanta area) are talking about Darius (Walker) and everything as much as you guys up there. Can you recall the first time you saw him play in a game? What about him really struck you right away when you saw him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He had the ability to make things happen, probably more than just one particular game; you like to look at a young man for a career.
The thing that most excites me is winning. I think his team, if not won three in a row, won two and played in three state championships. So that’s what attracts me. I like guys that win. There’s just something about them. They make plays at the right time and they step it up. I think he did a great job of stepping in and stepping up in his performance against Michigan.
Q. How did he handle the first week not playing? Did you have to say anything to him? Was he upbeat, positive?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He was very positive, but he wanted to play. He wanted to be in there. And that excites me.
Q. You’ve discussed at length Darius’ field of vision, what he can do on the field, what he brings to the team. What about his mental makeup convinced you as a freshman he was ready for one of the biggest stages Notre Dame has?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, when you look at his career, you look at being in three straight championships, it’s not the same, definitely. Playing in a state championship is not the same as lining up in Notre Dame Stadium with Michigan on the other side. But he’s had some bright lights in front of him, so I didn’t think he would get star struck by the lights. I thought he would step in and do pretty much exactly what he did.
Q. Michigan State in its first two games this year has been on the short end of the time-of-possession battle. When a team can win the time-of-possession battle, which I’m sure you try to do every week, what does that do for your defense other than just the fatigue factor? Does it allow them to have a little more pop? Do they hit harder? How does it change defensive play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you can keep your defense on the sideline, then what you’ve done already is made them a better defense statistically. That also should be reflected in their physical conditioning. The fewer plays you play, the more energy you should have, and you don’t wear down if by chance the ballgame comes down to those critical moments, that you have just one more step advantage on your opponents.
Q. In addition to the physical?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think any time you can gain physically, in most cases you will gain mentally.
Q. The team obviously has done so well against the run so far. Does that allow you to do as a coach and a staff? Does that give you some luxuries with the defense doing such a good job against the run?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It really makes it — the luxury it gives us is it really forces the opponent into one dimension in this game. Any time you can force an opponent into one dimension, then you can kind of slowly take apart that other dimension.
In the game of football, it is important that the dimension that you take away be the run. That’s repeated after years and years of football because even on most good days with a passer, you’re talking about him completing 70% of his passes. Now if you can get that three out of 10 to be the right ones for you, maybe it’s an interception, okay, now you’ve really turned the tide in a football game.
Being able to take away the run is very, very important.
Q. Could you talk about Dwight Ellick, the confidence he brings? How contagious is that among the team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Dwight has really stepped up his play. He came into this season very focused, committed to being even better than he had been in our program. And so far his work ethic and his desire to improve has really led him to be, his first two ballgames are pretty good, give or take a few plays here or there, but his play has been really good. And, of course, we came into the season believing that was kind of a green area for us. Those guys are starting to kind of shore up the play in the back end.
Q. Is that confidence that he exudes, is that something you see that sort of runs through the team, especially the DBs?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That confidence starts with our up-front guy, I would think with (Justin) Tuck, (Kyle) Budinscak, (Greg) Pauly, that group of leaders, with our linebackers, (Derek) Curry, (Mike) Goolsby, (Brandon) Hoyte and (Corey) Mays, they are the ones that really set the level and tone of confidence for our defensive team. I think it spreads from that group back to the back end where Dwight grabs it, Quentin Burrell grabs it, Preston Jackson grabs it. Now you’ve got a team that believes they can be a good, sound defensive football team.
Q. How blessed do you feel to have such a solid group of leaders on the defensive side of the ball?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you start talking about the success we’ve had on defense, I start with our defensive coaches, Coach (Kent) Baer, Coach (Greg) Mattison, Coach (Bob) Simmons, and Coach (Stephen) Wilks, They’re doing an excellent job of getting our guys in the right mindset, getting them in the right position. And our guys are doing their job by following through and making plays.
Q. We often hear after a tough loss a team saying they have to just put their game out of their minds and move on. I’m assuming the same is true of a big win. As emotional as that win was on Saturday, you have to — do you have to get it out of your mind by the time you hit the practice field today?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you’ve been around me any amount of time, I’ve said that both the negative and the positive can be detrimental to your success. To me that’s a life lesson. If you let good things go to your head, you usually fall flat on your face. If you let negative things beat you down, you usually fall flat on your face.
Life is about maintaining kind of what I tell our guys often that pursuit of perfection, knowing you’ll never be perfect, but every day you go out in pursuit of it. If we can have and develop that kind of mindset, I think you always guarantee yourself success.
Q. With the offensive game plan on Saturday, was that a result of a different philosophy on offense or simply you were able to do more by the way the game was going?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We were able to do more. When you have the ability to run the football, and once we got to the second quarter, we started to pick up the pace a little bit with our run. That was accompanied by the insertion of Darius Walker into the lineup. That gave us a lot more balance. It gave us an opportunity to keep our opponent on their heels just a little bit. They had to defend the perimeter, they had to defend the interior. Now he had to defend the deep pass zones. Now they had to defend the intermediate pass zones. When they blitzed we recognized the blitz and were able to get the throws to the quick receiver, the hot receiver.
When you have the ability to do those things, you make it very difficult for your opponent.
Q. With the way college football is now, with the parity, is it a case where from week to week almost anybody can beat almost anyone, depending on how well each team plays? Is that something that really I guess the fans, the media are still adjusting to, the fact it is so volatile?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if the fans and media will ever adjust to that one.
From a coach and player standpoint, it is really true probably more so now than ever before. If you don’t take the right mindset into a game, I can guarantee you’re going to get beat and it doesn’t matter who you play.
Q. What is the pressure like setting up a program like Notre Dame? Do you feel it’s easy to manage?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you’re in charge of a program of this nature, there is – without question – a great deal of pressure. But I’ve always said that the pressure really should come from within, that there’s no one that has higher expectations for this program and what we’re about or should be accomplishing than Coach Willingham.
Q. How long did it take you to adjust, to make it easy to manage that? Is it easy for you to manage that? Did you come in and you were able to kind of play it off?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I’m lucky, I did have head coaching experience before I got here. That was part of the training and the adjustment time.
Q. Is it different than it was at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes. I’ve used the word “more.” And I think that thoroughly applies.
Q. What jumps out about this Michigan State game? What players really impress you that you think you might have to do something with?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing is I usually look at the game in segments. I usually start on one particular day with one phase of it. The phase I started with this week was their defensive phase, defensive team. I was extremely impressed with their front seven, really thought it could be the best front seven that we’ve seen so far this year. That should be saying a lot because I think Michigan’s group is highly touted in terms of their skill, their size, their ability. But I was really impressed with Michigan State’s defensive front seven.
Looking at their offensive team, pretty soon they’re going to be settling on a quarterback, which will give them maybe a little bit more comfort level. But their ability to run the ball and what they’re doing there, especially out of their one-back sets, has been excellent.
Q. Is it more satisfying now winning as a coach or was it more satisfying winning as a player?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s more satisfying winning.
Q. No difference between either one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I wouldn’t trade a win, whether a player or a coach.
Q. Question about Michigan State personnel, their strong safety, Eric Smith. I don’t know if you saw any film without him in the lineup. What sort of difference does he make to the Michigan State defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We know he is a very physical and a very smart player, and very much the leader of their secondary. He adds dimensions that you like out of a safety. He is physical. That means you can drop him down, involve him in the run. He’s a leader, which means he gives the rest of the group great direction so they can get a line and do the things you need to do.
Q. I know you kind of glazed over the quarterback situation. Michigan State said they were going to start Stephen Reaves, the redshirt freshman. Seeing how it’s a young guy, do you intend to put more pressure on him? How do you go about preparing for a younger quarterback as compared to somebody who might be a veteran?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It would really be inappropriate for me to comment on how we would plan to attack him or what we would prepare to do for him. But I do know that we respect his skills, his ability, and what they’ve done in their system. We know Coach Smith and Coach Baldwin, who probably head up their offensive group, have a great plan for us.
Q. Do you have a certain policy that you follow when someone gets hurt? Do you say someone can’t lose a starting job to an injury, or is it always in the best interest of the team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s what’s in the best interest of the team. I would like to be able to lean to that individual and have him have an opportunity to get his position back. But if that next player is playing clearly above the level of someone else, that would be a disservice to your team not to have that guy in the lineup.
Q. Do you tell your team to forget about the recent history against Michigan State? Players here for five years are familiar with the troubles you’ve had. Some don’t seem to be aware of it. Do you tell them to forget about what’s happened with that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. You want a balance. You want an awareness of what happened in the past, but you don’t ever want to linger on it. If those players from the past were going to play for Michigan State, then I would put more emphasis on it. But I don’t think any of them are in the lineup.
It’s going to be their 2004 team against our 2004 team. It simply will come down to this: the team that plays the best will win.
Q. When you’re talking about the history of a series or what happened a week ago, how much is the structure that you bring to the program and the way a given game week will work, plan so far ahead, how practices are set up, how much is that designed to kind of keep the players focused on the present and keep their minds from wandering either back to previous games against Michigan State or what happened last week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I recognize is that you deal with humans, and humans have flaws. I have flaws. It’s impossible for me to just totally keep all of my attention on this moment. At some point I’m going to reflect back somewhere in my life to something that took place or project forward. So we have to deal with that.
Hopefully our system gives us enough stability that we can stay grounded, we can stay focused. But that’s human nature. Gosh, you’re going to think back to a birthday you had when you were 13 or something of that nature. It could have been a game that you played a great game five years ago, whenever it happened. That’s going to happen. We know that.
The key is for us to be successful, if you can stay in the moment, it gives you your best chance. Hopefully the stability and the lack of mood swings from those in leadership aids our guys in being very consistent and very focused.
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