Nov. 9, 2004
An interview with:
JOHN HEISLER: Just a couple quick notes. Kick-off is week is at 2:36 in South Bend, that’s eastern time. There will be about five minutes of highlights from the University of Notre Dame – Tennessee game at the end of our satellite feed.
With the open date next week, we will not have a teleconference on Tuesday. We will have practice in some way, shape or form Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but you might want to check in with our office in terms of specifics there. Then our next press conference, the final one, will be two weeks from today.
We’ll start by taking questions from people here in person.
Q. Can you put your finger on how this team beat the two Top 10 teams, then struggled against two teams it was heavily favored against?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’d probably say we stepped up against the Top 10 teams and rose to the challenge, the occasion and made more plays than they did. In the games that we stumbled, came up short, we didn’t do that, for whatever the reason.
Our guys have tried. They’ve tried to do their best every ballgame. They’ve gone out to give what they thought was the best at that time.
Q. I know you try as a coach to get the intensity up game after game. I think it’s hard to get the intensity up to the highest level every game. Is that part of the problem? BYU is ready for Notre Dame, but maybe Notre Dame isn’t quite psyched up against BYU.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Any time you’re working with people, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in an office or anyplace, you’re talking about human nature. You hear that phrase a lot. Human nature one day is high-spirited, and some days it’s not. But what we understand, and I think our players understand, is the very statement that you made, that everyone that plays Notre Dame, this is their Bowl game this is their national championship. We have to be prepared to bring that emotional level to any contest. Everything less than that makes for a difficult day.
Q. Coming off a Top 10 win, does that make this team a little dangerous?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It always does because that’s human nature. I’ve always said this, and will continue to say it: When you have success, it can be just as detrimental to you as failure. That’s where you have to guard against those things and you have to have a certain level of maturity. When teams have that level of maturity. You see them be much more consistent week in and week out. That’s what we’re hoping to get to.
Q. The only other team with two wins over Top 10 teams is Auburn. Do you look at that and wonder about what could have been.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I know. I can be that absolute about it. You could say, and some people have told me, this is not Coach Willingham saying this, some people have said, If you take 10 plays out of our season, we could be sitting at 8-1.
Q. Do you agree with that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely.
Q. The defensive line has played well this season.
COACH WILLINGHAM: They have been at times spectacular. And they were maybe as good as they’ve been this year against Tennessee. I think the play of Derek Landri, you can look at one of those fourth down-plays that Brandon Hoyte made a tackle, may have been he and (Mike) Goolsby that made a tackle and stopped the guy. You see the play of Derek Landri and you see why that play was stopped.
Then you see the interception by Goolsby, you see a three-man rush. That was not a blitz, that was a three-man rush. They were able to get intense pressure on the quarterback to make that play. They have played very solid. It’s not only reflected in that game, but they’ve been one of our more consistent groups all year. When you see Tennessee limited to less than a hundred yards, I think it was 58 yards rushing, that’s a pretty good performance by your up-front people when our game plan was to be in coverage.
Q. There’s a report that you were singing Rocky Top after the game. Is that true?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is completely unfounded. But I must tell you, there were some other people that had heard the song enough that they could have sung it in its entirety.
Q. In talking to other players about Justin Tuck, you spoke about him after the game, that seems to be the natural reaction of a lot of the players, they’re genuinely happy for him setting the (sack) record. What is his personality like? Is that an accurate depiction of the way his teammates feel about him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is because you look beneath the football player and you see a young man that has a genuine appreciation for life, a genuine respect for others, and has a high level of spirituality based on his upbringing and his family, and he lives up to those things.
When you have someone who has success that brings those elements to the table, you really feel good about them. You really want them to have all of the accolades that one can achieve.
Q. His improvement from the first year playing the run to the second year in terms of defending the run was so dramatic. How did he make such a substantial leap from one year to the next?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say it’s a strong desire to be absolutely the very best he can be. He’s also received excellent coaching from Coach (Greg) Mattison and our defensive coordinator Kent Baer. (They) have tried to ensure he is in the right places at the right time. It has been a team effort. But the team cannot move forward unless the individual is strongly driven, and I think he is.
Q. Dan (Stephenson) was laughing when Justin (Tuck) moved to defensive end, his pass-rush technique. Do you remember that technique being a little unorthodox at first?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know, I can’t remember those days. I can’t see those initial pass-rushes that he had. But you can imagine what it would look like because Tuck was not near the imposing body he is now. He was probably about 20, 25 pounds less probably, and probably a little more gangly in his appearance.
So I would imagine that it was a work in progress a few years ago (laughter).
Q. Ryan Grant was talking yesterday about the mental drain on a player, just from a practice situation, just dealing with the situations from day to day over the course of a year. Can you explain a little bit what the mental drain is like on a starter in particular?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I feel a little inadequate to answer that in a sense because you reference Ryan Grant, and I’m not sure all of the thoughts that Ryan had.
But I would imagine that it’s probably the normal ups and downs that you go through. Especially in Ryan’s case you have great expectations starting the season, you’re listed as a starter, you’re excited about getting back in the rotation, in the lineup, and doing great things. Then you’ve got a hamstring injury. Then you try to fight your way back into the line up. You’re partially in, you’re partially out. That does take some type of mental toll up and down.
Q. Specifically I think he’s talking about all the presnap things that a player has to consider in doing this on a day-to-day basis in a practice session, game situation, it’s a mental strain that there is on a player adapting to every aspect of the game.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Then he definitely is more qualified to speak on that than I.
Q. People generally talk about halftime adjustments. People throw that term out there all the time. What is the actual truth in terms of actual adjustments made at halftime? When you talk about adjustments, are they more subtle than they are major adjustments?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends on the game. There are sometimes things that are major you come up with. Maybe new schemes that you haven’t used during the first half or maybe even had planned for that ballgame based on what you see in some cases.
In other cases, it is very subtle. You may change, just tweak a step or an angle that a guy is taking on a particular blocking scheme. In other cases, there’s no adjustment that is made, it’s just to reinforce to your team that execution of what he had had planned has to take place. Sometimes it’s all of the above.
Q. Is it more often minor changes? Is the term overused?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say more often it’s minor because we have available to us so much film to study on the teams. In most cases, you have just about every film, every game that a team has played that season. In most cases you spend your summers going over every game they played in the last two or three years. You’ve seen so many of the things that they’ve done. So in many cases, it’s minor.
Q. You talked about how human nature plays into the course of the season. As you look back on the games where the team has stumbled, have you seen anything from them, either in preparation or the way they’ve played, that factors into maybe how you handle things from a coaching standpoint this week to kind of prevent that from happening again?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re always trying to stress how we can get better. And that’s in every facet. It doesn’t matter whether it’s how we practice, how we plan our practice, our communications. And in the games when we stumble, we think we have a good plan. You constantly are reviewing that plan to see if you can find ways to make it better and make it more appropriate for your guys.
But as we know, so much of it is a mental game, trying to create the right mindset so that a young man can perform at his highest level.
Q. This will be a weekend that a lot of guys will look back as their final home game. Carlyle Holiday and the kind of rollercoaster of a career he’s had, being replaced at quarterback, transition to a new position, what have you seen from him? What stands out to you about the way he’s handled the career he’s had here at Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The fact that he has really handled this situation with the most character of any young man that I’ve seen in a while. He’s stood tall, he’s never backed away from any situation that he’s been pressed into. With that, I have genuine respect for him.
Q. How does that character show itself, whether on the practice field or meetings? How does that play itself out?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It plays itself out in establishing him as a clear leader on this football team and one that not only I respect, because I am the guy that names our game captain, they’re usually guys I have the utmost respect for and how they relate to the program and to their peers, so I think he’s recognized as a leader on this team.
Q. When Brady (Quinn) took over last year, he talked a lot about how Carlyle (Holiday) really helped him through that. What role did Carlyle play in Brady’s adjustment to the college level?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The information that Carlyle had from his previous starts of being a quarterback, the things he had seen, he tried to pass on to Brady to make Brady’s transition as smooth as possible.
Q. Another player, Jared Clark, Anthony (Fasano) was talking about how he helped him on, Billy (Palmer) also helping him learn the position. How important is that to a team, and how difficult do you think it is for a player when they see a younger guy stepping into their role, and they’re still trying to help them out?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is extremely difficult because, again, you talk about human nature, and nobody wants to be the second fiddle, nobody wants to be replaced. Everybody wants to be the star. I would imagine if I were to ask that question of our players on the team, everybody would raise their hand, everybody wants to be a star. But there can be only 11 starters at one time. Therefore, it’s not easy.
What you look for, as I tell all of our fifth-year guys, the number one reason you should be back on this squad is that you’re a leader, you can provide leadership for our football team and you hope it is their performance following that.
Q. In terms of avoiding any type of letdown, how much do you start to get into with the team what’s still out there in terms of improving their position for Bowls, that sort of thing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you know, there are so many variables about the Bowls. I can’t calculate them yet, so I’m better off just to stay away from them.
What we do know: we are Bowl eligible. We do know with every win we have a chance to increase, in most cases, what Bowl we can go to. So that is my focus for our team. Every win creates another level. We have two remaining games, so if we can win those two, not putting the second game in front of the first game, but if we can win this one, hopefully it will establish a certain level of Bowl game we can go to.
Q. Also looking at the offense, when you look at your offense right now, what are you seeing in terms of consistency or lack thereof?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve been clear. We’ve not been consistent in a lot of places. That’s not a secret or any mystery.
How do you fix it? How do you try to get it better? Our guys are trying, they’re working hard, they’re playing to do the best they can do. Our quarterback doesn’t want to throw any incompletions, I don’t think our linemen want to miss a block, I don’t think Coach Willingham wants to put them in a bad situation. We’re trying to do all those things.
But do understand, the number one prerequisite for Coach Willingham is we won.
Q. We’ve gone about 20 minutes and we haven’t talked about this week’s opponent. Can you give me an evaluation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Pittsburgh presents a huge challenge. I think they’re sitting in their locker room right now really upset with themselves because they’ve been in a couple overtime games that they feel like they could win, should have won, et cetera.
They feel like they’re a much better team than their record indicates. And their record right now, if I’m correct, is 5-3. They’re in position to be a Bowl team if they can win Saturday.
So we know this is a very dangerous team. From an offensive standpoint, it’s difficult to say, but true, in many regards this offense may be a more `team’ offense than the offense they had a year ago with Larry Fitzgerald. They are doing some things a lot better and don’t rely on just one guy as they did a year ago.
Any time you have more weapons at your disposal, it makes you a greater challenge. We know defensively they are a physical group that can run around. Even though on some games they’ve given up yardage, they will play their best ballgame this weekend and that goes without saying.
Q. You talk about them sitting in their locker room thinking they could be better. Are they a mirror image of your team in a lot of respects?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You see two teams that will have a very similar approach in terms of attitude about how important this football game is.
Q. What is it about (Tyler) Palko that makes him so effective?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s versatile. He’s doing a great job of protecting the football, for the most part. He moves around in a timely basis to make it very difficult. And he’s putting the ball in the right places with his receivers.
Q. I want to follow up, we’ve talked about all year about the inconsistencies in the offense. At what point do you maybe look at scheme and say, “Maybe we need to make adjustments here,” and at what point do you say, “It’s a talent issue”? I realize it’s kind of a combination.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m curious as to why you’re asking the question then.
Q. One, when you receive the ball on your side of midfield throughout the 33 games, you’re averaging about 12 points a game. That makes it very difficult for you to win. You have been able to get some points out of your special teams and your defense. That’s one of the reasons you were successful on Saturday. If you don’t get those points out of your defense, do you have enough offense to be consistently successful on a regular basis?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we do. We’ve still not reached our full potential, and that’s why we continue to work at it.
Q. Ryan Grant came in last week saying it was the healthiest he had been all year. Did he come out of the game pretty good?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes. The only injuries we really sustained were to Maurice Stovall, who did not come back in the ballgame. I’ve not seen him today yet, first day of practice. I think he will be fine by week’s end. And (Freddie) Parrish, I think those were the only two that we received of any significance.
Q. Chris Vaughn has been out.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He will not return this year.
Q. What did he have?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He had a knee problem.
Q. Before the Michigan game, Rocket (Ismail) made a comment about the talent not being what it was back then. Did your players respond?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I heard comments about that statement. I didn’t hear those things.
Any time you would tell an athlete that’s playing a game that he doesn’t have a certain skill level, I think he bristles up just a little bit.
Q. Your thoughts on that at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: None.
Q. Could you talk about the senior class this year, maybe what sets them apart from other senior classes in the past.
COACH WILLINGHAM: They kind of maintain the profile of our senior classes. The guys that we’ve had have been fighters, they’ve continued to fight and battle to be the best they can be.
Q. Mike (Goolsby) coming back this season, not just his skill level, but the leadership he brings to the team.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That was important. As you should have noted I said just a few seconds ago that the number one reason any fifth-year player should come back is they offer leadership to the other guys first, and then hopefully performance. And Mike has had a fine year. Really appears to be even getting better as he finishes out this last stretch of games.
So it is important that he provide the leadership, and he’s doing that. It’s important that he provide the play on the field, and he’s doing that also.
Q. With the offense, does there come a point where maybe you feel like you evaluate things and figure out, “Does this work? Is this going to work?”
COACH WILLINGHAM: You look at everything you do. You look at your personnel. You look at your scheme. You look at every call. That is a constant evaluation.
Q. Do you make it during the season? After the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You make it every game. Every game you sit down. I look at those tapes. I’m reviewing, is this a great call for us? What is the player problem here? All of those things you look at every week.
Q. Darius Walker last couple games has looked like the hot back, making a lot of yards. Is there a reason he’s not getting the lion’s share of the carries at this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. Seems like the guy is kind of healthy again.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is doing some good things. We probably should be giving him — I said that Saturday, we maybe should have given him a little bit more of the carries on Saturday.
Q. When you look at your kick return, I’m sure you don’t want to talk about it, but it seems like you’ll fix one part of the problem, something else springs up. Maybe last week your returners not deciding exactly who is supposed to get the ball, whether to take the ball out. Just the hesitation, I guess.
COACH WILLINGHAM: How would you like me to solve that one?
Q. I’m just saying, is there a point where you sit down and say, “We got to fix this problem”? I guess it just continues.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I noted in your question, and forgive me for noting in your question, but you did say “we fixed one area, then another problem sprung up the next week.” That would imply to me that we are trying to fix those problems.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Thank you. We’re on the same page then.
Q. We’ve seen Justin Hoskins back there before. I didn’t notice if he traveled or not. Why haven’t we seen Justin back there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He didn’t travel.
Q. Is there a reason? Is he injured?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He was.
Q. Ryan Grant’s leadership has been discussed often pretty much the entire year. I’m curious if you’ve given any thought what it’s going to be like not to have him next year, this being his last home game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You look at all those guys, and you have very similar feelings. (Mike) Goolsby, (Derek) Curry, (Ryan) Grant, (Carlyle) Holiday, (Kyle) Budinscak. We could go on with the group. It’s amazing you’ll duplicate those feelings one year from now. There will be another group of seniors you’ll be parting ways with who have done a great job of being leaders, team members, doing all the things you want and desire from them.
That’s kind of the pains of college football that you have to part with those guys. Each year you go through that process.
But I think Ryan has been special because in the manner in which he has had to work through this year. Great expectations coming into the season and then suffering the hamstring injury, having to fight back, partially out. His leadership has been special. But there are a lot of guys in the senior class that have done that and next year will be the very same.
Q. With the run game, looking at the Tennessee game, certainly wasn’t prolific, looking at the yards per carry. How were you able to do that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought one of the keys was trying to keep Tennessee off balance and not just line up and try to run right at them, but run, mix in a boot, mix in a waggle, mix in a quick throw, mix in a power run, come back at them with a counter, but trying to keep them really off balance. I thought for the most part our play calling did that.
Q. In terms of looking at the run game on the whole, how have you seen that progress? I imagine you always want more. How do you evaluate it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve been some days good, some days not so good. Some moments good, some moments not so good. That has been really what we’ve been talking about and discussing for quite some time, the inconsistency. We just have to continue to work and get better. To a degree, you have to have a certain amount of confidence in it and believe in it and keep going to it.
Q. For a coach, is a lack of consistency the biggest frustration? If you’re consistent or inconsistent — if you’re either consistently good or bad, you know what you’re going to get, whereas if you’re inconsistent… Is that the biggest frustration for a coach, inconsistency?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Is that the biggest frustration? I think frustration for a coach comes moment by moment, there are so many things you can put in there. But, no, it’s one of those things that you don’t like. You know if you can get it in a position that you’re comfortable with, you feel a lot better.
The one thing I know about this game, I know that every coach is talking about inconsistency. There’s not one, whether they’re the No. 1 team in the country or they’re the No. 117 team, they’re all talking about inconsistently.
Usually what happens is the team that is most consistent makes a few more plays that given day than the other team and they win. And in some cases, they make a lot more plays.
Q. Physically, mentally, do you feel Darius (Walker) hit a little bit of a wall and has gotten over that hurdle right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: More than hitting the wall, I think he just continued to learn and grow because a lot of times when you’re first thrown in, you just kind of perform, and then as you continue to play, you learn and you see more things than you ever saw before.
He’s continuing to grow and getting better each week.
JOHN HEISLER: We’ll take some questions from the phone.
Q. It seems like you’ve talked about Derek Landri quite a bit this season. He seems to have developed a knack for being right in the middle of the big plays. Other than the fact that his position requires him to be in the middle, can you talk about that instinct that he seems to have developed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve said some time ago, I thought there was something special about Derek because I thought he understood leverage, and a lot of players don’t truly understand leverage and understand how to use it to their advantage. Because of that, I was just waiting, and I’ve been pleased that this year he has really started to use all of those skills that he has to really make impact.
He has been, these last four or five games of his, they’ve been very, very good.
Q. What kind of leadership does he provide on the team? You have so many strong seniors on the team. Is he in that mix at all or is it one of those things this year where he’s watching and learning and you expect him to step into the role next year more?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I can say he’s watching and he’s learning. I believe that would be the case.
But it’s not his turn yet. When some of the other seniors that have occupied those roles depart, that he’ll be one of those guys that should be stepping up and taking much more of a leadership than he has in the past.
Q. I talked to the guys after the Tennessee game, but how much do you have to worry now, the Bowl eligibility, how much do you have to guard against that becoming sort of satisfying to the guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You always have to be concerned about it. It won’t be my major focus. What I’ll be really targeting is the fact that we’ve got one heck of a football team coming in here in Pittsburgh, and they are what we have to guard against. If we can play our best football against them, we’ll put ourselves in a position to be successful.
Q. How much have you at all started to look at the Bowl scenarios?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I really haven’t. I’ll let others in our office, some of our administrators, I’ll let them focus on that right now. My concern is fairly simple: if we win, it allows us to position ourselves higher and higher within the Bowl structure, and maybe there might be limits on that that I’m not really aware of right now, but still winning is our best opportunity.
Q. Is there somewhat of a relief to go ahead and get the six wins out of the way, and you can move to position yourself? Is there some relief there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I won’t say “relief.” Every win allows you to step a little higher up that ladder. That’s what we want to position ourselves as high as possible.
Q. You talked about Mike Goolsby a little bit. In talking to him yesterday, he said he really hasn’t been that satisfied with his season. I thought that was interesting. He feels like he could have played a lot better. He even said he wished he had another year. Does that say something about his personality?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing in there, yes, if the NCAA would allow us, we would take him for another year, that should be noted.
That’s what you expect from your outstanding players, that they are never satisfied. Regardless of the performance, 14 tackles, sacks, interception for a touchdown, that you want more. Hopefully he wants 15, 16, 17, two sacks, et cetera. That’s what you love about competitive young men.
So it hopefully speaks well for his leadership of himself and of our football team.
Q. Does he have what it takes? What can this guy bring to the next level?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, I’m always hopeful that our guys have that opportunity and they take advantage of it. I’m never one to predict that a guy will or will not make it, but I think he’ll have ample opportunity to.
Q. You were able to carve up a lot of yards on the ground last year against Pitt. That seems to be a recurring problem this team this year. Is that one of the things you’re going to look at this week to maybe exploit that D line?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We haven’t completed all of our studies of the Pittsburgh defense as of yet. We’ll be trying to finalize our thoughts and the picture they present to us through their games this year probably by Wednesday or Thursday.
If you were by chance to contact me later in the week, I might have some idea about that (laughter).
Q. Greg (Lee), another up-and-coming wide receiver. What problems does he present for your secondary?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, as you know, I think Coach (Walt) Harris and the Pittsburgh staff have done a great job with all of their wide receivers. It seems each year they have one of the premiere guys if not in the BIG EAST in the whole country. Any time you have a guy that is that skilled, he poses a great deal of problems. I think if I’m correct, Greg’s last performance was almost 200 yards, 188.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He had a spectacular game. When you have a player that performs at that level, it is always a problem.
Q. Coach (Walt) Harris has come under a lot of scrutiny this year. Looking at it from afar, how do you think he’s done this year coaching-wise, his tenure as Pittsburgh?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, if you tell me there’s a coach in this country that hasn’t come under scrutiny, I’d like to see it.
Second of all, I think he’s done well. He’s got his team positioned not where he would like them to be, but I think at 5-3, they feel they have a chance to do some things.
JOHN HEISLER: We’ll see you in two weeks. No teleconference next Tuesday.