Oct. 12, 2004
An interview with:
COACH Tyrone Willingham
JOHN HEISLER: Good morning. Just a couple quick notes. Kickoff this weekend is at 12:10 eastern time at Giants Stadium, which is 11:10 here in South Bend.
For those of you connected by satellite, we’ll have about five minutes of highlights from the Notre Dame-Stanford game at the end of our satellite feed.
We’ll start by taking some questions from people here in person, then to folks on the telephone.
Q. Last week you were 10 of 19 on third down. This is the second time in the last 18 games you were above 50 percent. We were talking to Ryan Grant yesterday. He said that is a constant emphasis for you guys about staying on the field. What are the keys to being a successful team on third down? Obviously, a lot of it is tied to what happens on first and second down.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Ideally those downs play a huge part of it because if there’s less ground to cover, it’s easier to cover it. So that’s the first thing.
But the second part of it is, and the major portion of it is, you have to execute on third down. That’s whether it’s third and short, third and long, third and medium. You’ve got to execute. If you’re executing and putting things in the right place, it happens.
We were fortunate Saturday, our guys, that was a pretty high percentage. You normally don’t see that.
Q. Having Ryan Grant back, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that him being in the lineup has something to do with the fact that on that day you did finish above 50 percent.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think I’ve been pretty consistent in saying that Ryan Grant is more than just performance. I think he’s leadership. I think there’s a much better feeling about what has to take place. There’s experience. So all the things that you expect a fifth-year senior to bring to your team, I think Ryan is doing for us. I personally thought it was a very gutsy performance on his part Saturday.
Q. The term “concussion” was used. What do you anticipate with Brady (Quinn) this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Brady is fine. What we have to do is always go through the normal steps any time a guy has an injury. This one requires that you look at him, but I think he’s fine.
Q. You’re saying you anticipate him playing this weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely.
Q. Naturally you’re going to get bombarded with the questions of the 40 straight wins. I was wondering what your perspective on that was in terms of how you handle it with your football team.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It will be handled no different than the earlier situation that we discussed. I’m trying to remember.
Q. 30 years since Purdue won at Notre Dame stadium.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No it was earlier than that. It was something we were discussing that came up in one of the questions about the point differential last year in the Michigan game.
What kind of focus did that have?
Those games don’t have anything to do with this game. We’re going to play a Navy team that is a very good football team. It’s an undefeated football team. They’ve earned the right to be where they are. That’s the team we will face. We’ve got to be prepared to play that team and play very well.
Q. Heading back to the Meadowlands, what goes through your head as far as the first game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Really until you mentioned that, I hadn’t looked at it along those lines. My focus is primarily on Navy. It’s a good football team that’s playing very well. We have to play them in the Meadowlands. The surface will have changed since I was last there, if I’m correct. I think we played on grass last time. We’ll be playing on field turf this time. So that will be a change.
But, no, no emotions one way or another about going back to the Meadowlands to the site of my first ballgame.
Q. What was that like for you? You’ll have to think about it, in a way, first time you took Notre Dame on the field.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Maybe it’s something that’s wrong with me, but I’m thinking about what I have to do during the ballgame. Those other things don’t factor in. I got to make decisions about should we defer, the conditions of the game, how should we analyze that, what play should be coming next.
Those emotions of coming out of the tunnel don’t register the same. I mean, there are too many other things to think about.
Q. Paul Johnston said a number of times Notre Dame has parade All-Americans, Navy has guys that march in parades. When you think about that, how do you think about it’s said that Notre Dame should meet Navy every time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I just know that the guys he marches in the parade are pretty tough, that is one heck of an obstacle to overcome. I think there are some advantages there. I like tough guys.
Q. Do you feel it is that type of situation where Notre Dame is expected to win? It’s a lose-lose in that regard?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I look at it as another challenge, another outstanding football team we have to play. If we don’t play our best, we won’t win.
Q. Did Brady (Quinn) suffer a concussion?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that might be what someone would rule.
Q. Do you expect giving Pat (Dillingham) extra work this week just in case Brady (Quinn) isn’t feeling well?
COACH WILLINGHAM: All that will be determined as we go through the week, as we take our normal steps in looking at what happened, what should be the next step. We’ll determine that.
Q. You fully expect him to be able to play on Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I expect us to be back to business as normal this afternoon.
Q. Why does the team seem to have so much trouble getting started?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know. That’s one you’re trying to put your finger on. You’re trying to say, is it something you said, something you did, something that was unsaid. You’re never sure.
Q. Did you go over to the seniors at one point the other day and ask them to try to fire the team up a little bit? Ryan (Grant) said at some point you came over and said that the team was lethargic, I don’t know if you used that word.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I didn’t use “lethargic.”
Q. He did.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I probably had a couple other words for it (laughter), okay? But, no, I noticed that it wasn’t right. I’ve always said that part of what I have to do is adjust. I have to know where our team is at. When they’re not there, I’ve got to find ways or buttons to push to get them there.
I recognized that we were not there when we went up the tunnel after warm-up. Then it becomes a matter of myself and our coaches starting to try to do the right things to get our football team back where we need to be.
I don’t think we reached that point until after halftime.
Q. Nobody wants to be known as a member of a team that lets the streak end.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our guys would love to keep that going. But you can’t focus on that. What you have to focus on are the things that we have to do, okay? If we do what we’re supposed to do, we play better than Navy, we’ll win.
Q. (Brandon) Hoyte is known as a guy that does a lot of things besides football. He says he’s pared down a little bit.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You have to understand, what he pares down to is to what most of us probably do on a daily basis. He has a full life and great plans for his life. You enjoy that and you enjoy a young man that lives his life with that much fullness. At the same time, you always tell your young men that sometimes in life you can’t do everything at certain times, that you have to have certain things that are priorities.
And I think in his outlook of what he wants to accomplish, especially with this football team, he thought it necessary to kind of trim back some of the things.
Q. He takes great pride in being known as one of the hardest hitters on the team.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, he does.
Q. Where does that come from? Someone asked him after the BYU game about hitting the quarterback hard. He said it had to be done.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think if you look at Brandon, and you described him by all of the things that he does, you find that you have a young man that enjoys life to the fullest and enjoys it by doing the right things. It’s not a mystery then that he would enjoy playing football to his fullest, playing it all out, as physical as you can play, as hard as you can play. He brings all that to the game.
It’s just part of the way he’s wired. He’s wired in that manner. He likes that contact. He enjoys doing things to the fullest. The collisions, enjoys doing things to the fullest.
Q. Why the problem in the first half getting 11 men in the huddle?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Depends on the situation. One time it might have been 12. We’re trying to get an advantage (laughter).
COACH WILLINGHAM: With 10? They missed my signal.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Any time it could be any of those, okay? For the most part this year we’ve been pretty good.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m not sure. I don’t think it was. I don’t know if it was just that one play.
Q. Kyle (Budinscak), what you’ve seen from him over the past couple years, how he’s kind of grown and developed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Kyle Budinscak. He’s exciting because he first of all defines the student athlete because he is truly a student. He is serving a Notre Dame degree in the fullest. He combines that with a drive to be very successful on the field. You look at the fact that last year he had a knee injury and he has rehabbed himself to a position that he is one of the dominant players in our defensive front. That kind of drive, that kind of leadership, that kind of skill level is what you admire in a young man because he is truly doing it all.
It’s amazing that I sit here, the last person mentioned was Brandon Hoyte. He’s doing it all. Kyle Budinscak, he’s doing it all. To me, that’s the goal of our football team. It’s nice to have young men in your program that provide that kind of example.
Q. Looking at the Navy-Notre Dame game, what is it that you think has maybe made this game one of those games? When you look at the alleged talent level, there’s certainly a huge divide. The game doesn’t always play out that way.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s human nature. It’s about gearing up one’s mind to complete the process. If for one reason or another one doesn’t do that, or one is motivated greater than the other one, things turn out a lot different than what you write down on paper.
Q. I’m sure the toughness part, maybe their discipline probably plays a role in it, too.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it does. These are guys that, if you look at their day, the demands on them and their day, they have their military commitment, they have their football commitment, their academic commitment, it takes a lot of structure, toughness and discipline for those guys to do that.
When you bring that to the football field, those have always been winning characteristics.
Q. D.J. (Fitzpatrick) is having a pretty good year kicking the ball. He could have a year left if I’m not mistaken. Is this a year you would be recruiting a kicker?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. We went through that the past year with the two sophomores or red-shirted freshmen that we have. At some point they will come on and be fine kickers.
Q. When you’re looking for kickers, do you typically look for guys who can hopefully do both? Is that the way you look at it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I just think you look for the talent level. You look for the skill, okay? The actions of the two are somewhat different, and you have to be very careful in trying to combine those. We just look for the talent level. If there’s one great guy that can do both, we gladly accept it. But if we have to find individuals that only have a talent at one of those, we’ll take that if he’s the right guy.
Q. Navy has had a little more than two weeks to prepare for this game. Do you remember a game in which you had that type of time frame to prepare? What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Obviously that is an extended amount of time. Sometimes the disadvantages are you can get a little stale if you’re not careful and your young men have kind of over-prepared for the game plan, that would be a disadvantage.
The advantage is you have a great opportunity to really study and prepare for that team and really get down all of the nuances of your game plan that sometimes with only two or three days to prepare is very difficult.
Q. In coaching at Stanford, here, what do you like about coaching smart players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s amazing you should say that because I was seated at my desk last night. I was listening to the ESPN announcers as they go through their Monday night ritual in talking about all the teams in the league. They were commenting about the Patriots. Some of you might have seen that or heard it. It was amazing how they were talking about the sum of their parts. The whole team was much greater than the individual parts and how they were a very smart team, a very intelligent team and they were thinking or analyzing the guys that might have a chance to be Hall of Famers. The best they could come up with was probably one, and they said it was the quarterback if he continues along the course he’s going, that might be the only Hall of Famer outside of the coach.
But it was amazing they were talking about having smart players that also had athletic ability and how that combination was one of the key ingredients to them being or having won I think it is 19 games in a row.
I’m sitting there saying, “That’s what we’re trying to put in place, the same kind of team.” So everybody values smart and intelligent players. It’s what everyone is looking for.
Q. They talked a little bit about how you could see that manifest itself in meetings sometimes. Guys are able to understand quicker. I think they talked about the ability to maybe change things, guys are able to recognize more. Do you see that, as well?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s no question about that. I’ve always described it in this way. I say if there’s something in your life that you possess, your car, do you want to take it to some mechanic or the smart mechanic? Pretty simple for me. I want mine to go to the smart mechanic.
Q. Kyle (Budinscak), when I was talking to him yesterday, about the topic of once he got injured, there was a lot of excitement around Victor (Abiamiri), him coming back this year. He heard that a little bit, found it pretty easy to dismiss. Did you talk to him about that at all, “Hey, you’re not getting overlooked here”?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We valued Kyle. We valued his performance. That’s why he was a starter. But we knew we would be much stronger if we had Kyle, Victor and Justin (Tuck) as opposed to just one or the other or one of the guys missing from that group.
So it was important for us to have him come back, to have him come back healthy, and to have him be a major player in our defensive front.
Q. Offensive tackles, they’re seen as more skill-position players than they used to be. Do you agree with that perception at all? Why do you think that might be?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve long said that, and it’s not just the offensive tackles, I think the it’s whole front. I’m a believer that the game is played the fastest in the lines, not at the wide receiver spots. They run faster, but the game is played faster in the interior. You’re nose to nose. All your decisions have to take place in a very small space and the decisions must be extremely rapid.
Q. Over the last couple years, you have searched for solutions at tackle. Why has it been maybe harder to find tackles than guards and centers on this team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Probably the size requirements and the athletic skill that you demand of those guys. A lot of times you’re isolated against guys, linebackers, secondary people, that are blitzing and coming off the edge. They have to have the speed to stay with those guys and block at the same time. You’re going to have them to take that 270-pound defensive end and drive him 20 yards down the field.
You can see, the dimensions are probably a little bit different there than they are inside. I think you can get away with a smaller guy inside.
Q. In terms of Ryan (Harris) and Mark (LeVoir), how do you feel they’ve progressed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They’re continuing to get better. We need continued improvement. I think they would be the first to say that.
Q. Mark (LeVoir) moving back and forth. Have you seen him kind of rewire himself again or do you feel like — what strides do you think he’s made so far?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s made some good strides. But it’s not an easy transition, okay? He went from kind of being protected, you have a guy on your right, a guy on your left. You can squeeze things a certain way. Now when he squeezes things to the right, there’s no one there. It changes the perspective. I think he’s adjusting well.
Q. In terms of overall offensive philosophy, how do you feel about the max protect idea? Is that something you’re open to when you need to be or is it something that you want to have that option of a tight end being out on a pass route?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you mix it in. We do mix it in. It doesn’t just have to be a tight end. You can max protect with your two backs, not release them, get to seven guys in your protection, or you can do it by keeping the tight end. There are a lot of ways you can do it.
Q. How often would you estimate you do that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I couldn’t give you that number.
Q. Talk a little about Navy’s offense, the way they run it, the problems it poses for defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing in discussing their offense is it’s unique because it would be the only time that we see it this year. Two is the option. The option has always been somewhat of an equalizer to some degree in the game of football, especially if you use a lot of cut blocks, things of that nature. But that applies a different scenario. When you use that kind of blocking scheme, you can get away with a smaller lineman and put more pressure on the defense. They have to have all their responsibilities covered. That is very difficult for modern-day defenses simply because modern-day defenses like to gamble. They like to try to overload and take advantage of the overload situation.
Q. With that offense being as successful as it’s been, why don’t you think more schools run it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Everybody has their own style. There are offenses being successful throwing and running the ball.
Q. Talk about Polanco, the way he directs the offense and the problems he poses being an extremely mobile quarterback?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think “extremely mobile” is probably an understatement. He is really another back, but yet he does have the ability to be very efficient with their pass game.
He is that tailback in many cases with their load scheme, with their option scheme, and it gives them a great advantage.
Q. Eckel is a terrific fullback for them, as well. There aren’t that many fullbacks anymore in college football. Why have more and more teams gotten away from using the fullback as an offensive weapon?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Because with the eight- and nine-man fronts, you’re trying to balance the front line. Sometimes you’re two tight end alignments gives you a chance to force them to balance up the front. In doing that, if you want to maintain wide receivers and spread it out, you take out the fullback.
Q. You’re going to set a Notre Dame record this week in the fact that you will have back-to-back games where you faced a nose guard named Babatunde.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That question should have been reserved. Gosh, you guys are breaking the script.
Q. Talk about what a big nose tackle does in disrupting an offense. You see it used more and more in the NFL. You’re facing another pretty big guy here in a 290-pounder.
COACH WILLINGHAM: If he also has the good movement, it makes a huge difference in the middle because years ago I think it was Michigan kind of led the thought process years ago with a very mobile nose guy that could kind of jump around, skip around, and create havoc because you had to double team him all the time.
With a big guy, you’re looking to get the same thing. You’re looking to have him force a double team. Any time you can do that, now you reduce the blocking scheme down, allow your linebackers to be a little more successful.
Q. I don’t think Boston College has a Babatunde on the roster.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’ve already checked (laughter)?
Q. Justin (Tuck) talked about how he hates to play Navy, because of their discipline, toughness, the scheme they run. What is this week like for the coaching staff, particularly the defensive coaches?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is a lot of work because you’ve got to hit this one right on the nose. There can be no missing this one. It’s not like anything else you faced this year. It really demands that our coaches do a great job this week.
Q. How does that translate on the field in the sense if you have a defense that kind of prides itself on being aggressive, maybe even gambling a little bit like you talked about, when there’s so many responsibilities, can that take away from that advantage and maybe have them thinking a little too much?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s where you have to be careful. You have to build into your system the ability to gamble and be correct in your gamble. But yet at the same time not give our guys so much that they’re thinking and can’t move and can’t get lined up and can’t figure things out. That is very difficult.
Q. Several of the players, especially the front seven, have seen this before, played Navy before, other service academies. How much does that experience play a factor? Also going back to talking about having intelligent players who are able to see things developing in front of them better than others.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s a plus. But probably the biggest hindrance this weekend is the style, because you’re going to see a lot more cut blocks, which is difficult to practice. When you practice that, there’s a chance you can get one of your guys injured in practice. You can’t afford that.
The preparation of this game from a physical standpoint is very difficult.
Q. Playing at the Meadowlands might not have that much significance to you. It certainly does to Brandon Hoyte because of the game he played there a couple years ago. What do you remember about the circumstances leading up to that, his reaction, Brandon’s reaction, learning he was going to start?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s an added ingredient in there also, and that is I would say Brandon is going home. Any time that you have a chance to go home, it’s a big deal, it’s important. So not only was the opportunity to step in for Courtney (Watson), when we found that out, we reacted as coaches always do. We expect the next guy to step in and, “Let’s go play.” Of course, he was well-prepared and ready for that. Yet at the same time you’re not ready for it because it does come as somewhat of a surprise. He handled it very well.
Q. Players from New Jersey have been pretty good to Notre Dame. Is there any common link as to why they play well here or is it a matter of them being good players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, that area produces a ton of great athletes that come out of that area. When you get great athletes, they should become great players.
Q. Navy is a team that if you let them have lots of long possessions, I wonder what kind of pressure that puts on your offense to be efficient every time they get the ball?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I chuckle a little bit because you said, “If you let them.” They’re pretty good and they do some things on their own that make it very difficult.
But what we know is with their style of play, you have to be all over it, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint because if not, you can look up and the ballgame can be gone. I mean, there can be no time on the clock and they’ve taken eight minutes, nine minutes, and got a score, and you feel like you’re kind of behind the eight ball, like you’re scrambling to catch up.
This is a game we must get off to a great start. We’ve got to come out and hopefully get the upper hand on this and see if we can put them in that position where they’re trying to dig out of the hole.
Q. I want to talk to you about Justin (Tuck). He says he gets a lot of double teams. How as a coach do you help a player cope with the double teams? What can you do as a team to take advantage of the double teams on Justin?
COACH WILLINGHAM: One of the things you try to do is move him around to some degree to kind of eliminate some of those. But some teams have the ability to adjust just as you adjust. So, therefore, as you move him, they can move the tight end or they can shift him back, especially in those passing situations where there are certain things they can do that you may not be able to avoid.
But what you tell your player is that if he is being double-teamed, it should also open up a window of opportunity for one of your other players. You tell him not to quit because sometimes there’s that imaginary double team out there where they start a certain way or they chip and you still have chances to make your play and get the job done.
Q. I know earlier in the season Travis (Thomas) had some problems in games. How is he progressing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is still very much in our thoughts. He hasn’t received much action. At some point this year, he’ll be back in the fold.
Q. How do you feel like he’s handled the whole situation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s done a great job because we have continued to coach him and continued to work with him and try to get him where we think he should be.
Q. What would be your assessment of the state of the offensive line? How well do you think they’re playing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve had some good play and then we’ve done some not-so-good play. I know that sounds generic (laughter).
Q. It does.
COACH WILLINGHAM: But honestly it is entirely true, okay? We’ve done some good things. We believe that there’s still a lot of room for us to improve and get better, whether it’s our run game or our pass protection. That’s what we’re looking to do.
Q. Is this surprising to you that halfway through the season, with the veteran group, that they’re still having a lot of goods and bads, that it’s not maybe more in the good column?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would want more good, but at the same time I think we’re playing good people.
Q. Can you talk about the play of DJ (Fitzpatrick)? Talk about how he’s emerged consistent for you guys.
COACH WILLINGHAM: When we started the season, I thought one of our areas of weakness would probably be our kicking game, that we needed to see it improve. We had questions as to who would be our punter. We felt pretty good with DJ as our kicker, but we were also going to look and see there if we couldn’t improve.
What DJ has done is really took the lead and put himself in a position where we feel comfortable with him doing both of our field goal and extra points and also doing our punting. He has continued each week to improve and get better, whereas I think he’s almost an eight-yard improvement over how he finished last year in his punting.
Q. How important has that been for you to have the consistency at punting as opposed to last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is critical because that is an area that you can exchange a fairly huge chunk of yardage. If you have that as a plus for you, that means that’s one more first down that the opponent has to gain, and in his case he’s done a great job of punting the ball inside the 20 yard line, inside the 10 yard line. You are really gaining there.
COACH WILLINGHAM: We felt this year, that’s why you haven’t seen as much of our fullback play, because we felt like this was a strength for us. So we feel very fortunate that that group has embraced the challenge and allowed us to put a lot of our offense on their shoulders.
Q. Do you think that’s a unique trait for a group this year or do you think this is something you guys have always had in the past that you’re now starting to use?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think they’ve really grown. I don’t think they were at this level the previous years. They’ve been growing and getting better and improving.
Q. (Inaudible) faced his team three times, could you pinpoint the hallmark of a Paul Johnston team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say first that they know and understand their offense and their style of play extremely well.
Number two, he as a coach does a great job in that understanding of knowing where you move and how to counter that because he has been in this system I guess now probably near 20 years or so, going back to earlier days in his career.
At Georgia Southern, I think he won maybe two national championships in his division, so he has done a great job with his system, he thoroughly understands it, and he believes in it.
Q. You’ve played now three times, this will be your third time against Navy in their triple option. Do you feel like you and your coaching staff have gotten a better understanding of exactly what they do? Do you think you’re more prepared to defend it now than you were two years ago, the first time you faced them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I hope we are. But the truth is that Paul constantly makes adjustments and changes within that offense based on the team he’s going to see. His foundation is very strong. That will remain. But, no, he’ll have some things in there that we’ll take advantage of, any of the knowledge we feel we’ve gained over the years.
Q. You’ve been a part of two games now with Navy that were fairly close. Obviously, last year was very close. Year before Navy was leading till the end. Based on that, are you really surprised it’s gone on this long? Do you figure it’s inevitable eventually it’s going to end, the streak?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess if you base things on the law of average, I’d have to agree with you.
Q. At what point did you think Darius Walker was going to be able to help you this season? Was there a point during fall camp?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought based on his high school performance, just watching him, depending on his maturity, which we needed to see once he arrived on campus, that his skill set would allow him to help us this year.
Q. How much do you think having his parents move to South Bend has helped him be able to contribute this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Any time you can have a strong support system around you, it allows you to adapt a little easier to the environment you’re placed in. I think having his family here has been that kind of support system for him.
Q. How do you feel you’re different as a coach now than you were your first game here?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’d say a great deal. With the games we’ve played, the experiences that we’ve had, I believe I’ve continued to grow as a coach. Hopefully my awareness of things around me is greater. I think I’ve gained a great deal of experience.
Q. Anthony (Fasano), do you anticipate him playing this weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do, but I’m not sure about that. We’ll find out as we start today.