Sept. 28, 2004
NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL
An Interview With:
COACH Tyrone Willingham
Q. We were speaking with a couple of the defensive players yesterday asking them about Coach (Kent) Baer and the common theme seemed to be the defensive players like the intensity he brought to the job of defensive coordinator. What are some of the qualities that he has brought to the position that has prompted you to stick with him and choose him as your defensive coordinator?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Wonderful choice of words, “stick with him.”
Q. I didn’t mean it in that sense.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I know.
Q. You’ve been loyal to him and he’s been loyal to you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve been together now for, what, 10 years or so.
Number one, Kent is smart. He understands defense. He understands offense. He understands young people. I would agree with the intensity that he brings; that he is all about that moment and performing at that time. He emphasizes that in his own manner to our young men and they respond.
Q. A couple of players also mentioned yesterday that they felt a little bit disrespected before the Purdue game last year when they had run through the pre-game formations and things like that. What would your reaction be if your team did something like that? What would the repercussions be of your team doing something like that for the opposition?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I would hope I would never have to deal with that situation. I would hope our guys wouldn’t do that.
It’s always great if you have a very healthy respect for your opponent, regardless of what they have done or haven’t done and I would hope that our team would approach every ballgame in that manner. The way we would say it to our team is that we respect, but do not fear, anyone.
Q. You mentioned after the game you were a little bit surprised that we acknowledged the six out of eight.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I was only joking then.
Q. But do you sometimes think that the focus is so extreme on Notre Dame that maybe Notre Dame players and Notre Dame coaching staff doesn’t get the credit that perhaps it deserves?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I won’t use the word “extreme,” okay. I’ll say, negative.
In your business, I think the common practice is negativity sells. People want to know. So therefore, I think the media moves in that direction. That’s part of the business.
Q. Have you seen that change through the years? Is that a societal thing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’d say yes. This is not the place for this commentary, but there’s been a huge change in news. Agencies have gone to making the news, as opposed to reporting the news, and that’s a major difference.
Q. And that leaves me to my final question, I asked a couple players this yesterday and it caught them by surprise and you can think about it over this week and answer next week. If you were in our position, if you were a member of the media, how would you approach the line of questioning maybe a little bit differently than we tend to do it? Or what would some of the things be that you might not ask?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It won’t take me a week to come up with an answer. (Laughter). To me, it’s very simple. Life is full of ups and downs. There are goods; there are bads. I’d simply show both sides of the coin, that’s it.
Q. Wondered if you could talk a little bit about the rivalry with Purdue and what’s made this rivalry what it is?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You can really focus on two points. Number one this is the second most common opponent that Notre Dame has and if I’m correct, this will be (meeting) number 76. That would be point number one.
Point number two would be that there are only about roughly three hours or so separating the two schools, and those two things usually give you a pretty intense rivalry.
Q. Now, what about the last few years or so, the games have been so close.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’d say that’s good football.
Q. How does that play into the whole rivalry part?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It only makes it even more intense; that it goes right down to the wire. I’m not sure what the statistic is, but I think the last couple of games have probably been within a touchdown or so.
That just makes for and improves the intensity of the rivalry.
Q. Does their pre-game run intensify the rivalry also?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There will be things like that, yes, that catch people’s attention.
Q. Talk about the attention that you receive, what do you think that this is the first time that Notre Dame has been 3-1 and unranked; were you disappointed to see you were unranked, or do you pay attention to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I have not focused on that. Purdue offers us enough challenges that we don’t need to look at anything else. This is may be the best football team we play this year. I know this is probably the best quarterback we’ll see this year.
Q. Coaches say they don’t pay attention to the rankings and it doesn’t matter, but in football it makes a difference. When do you start paying attention and worrying about it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I really don’t in a sense, because if we win the game with the schedule that we have at Notre Dame, we’ll be exactly where we should be. It’s almost impossible for us not to be there. We’ve already faced the number seven team in the country and this weekend we have the number 15 team in the country. Somewhere things hold true, you may have the number one team, the number eight team in the country.
There are opportunities. We have to just play and if we do that, everything will unfold in a wonderful manner.
Q. Sometimes on Sundays — if you asked one of your coaches if you heard where we are, or did you guys —
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I vote. So I have to look. I have to be aware of that. I usually know where all of the teams are.
Q. Some players seem to know that Purdue has not won here since ’74. Are you aware of that fact?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, I am.
Q. Is that something that puts more pressure on Notre Dame, or Purdue or them to break it, or for you to keep it going?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s probably more pressure on the opponent.
Q. Just because it’s been so long?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, it’s a nice place to shift it to.
Q. Talk about Kyle Orton and what problems he presents.
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you look at him just from a statistical standpoint, he has accumulated probably by the time his career is over the second-most statistical success of any quarterback in that university’s history, and they have had some pretty good quarterbacks when you go back.
So just from a statistical standpoint, you know he is good. But then you watch him and you watch the little things that he does to help his team be successful. Everybody is highlighting the play that he orchestrated with their back against Illinois’s blitz. They step up to blitz, he sees something and recognized that they have got one guy uncovered, positions the guy right where he should be, releases him and they have got a touchdown.
So when you have a quarterback that can do those things, it makes him almost bulletproof because you know he can get the ball out of his hands before you can get there. You know he knows the right guy to go to, and you know he’s seeing the right things. So he becomes almost impossible to defend.
Q. How much does a guy like Stubblefield, where they have a relationship where they have been doing it for a while and they seem to make plays together, rather than just one guy doing it, how much harder is that to defend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Those two are truly, truly talented. Again, you have another guy that’s just amassing tremendous numbers out there. I think he had 11 catches last week. That’s impressive.
Q. And finally, talk about Justin Tuck, obviously he’s getting more attention this year, I think he only has three sacks.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s not a bad start. But when you think of Justin, you don’t feel as good about that start because he would sit here and say, gosh, I should have a few more, I want a few more. And those will come. It will be at a price, though, because there will be more attention. There will be backs set to him, there will be tight ends set to him, there will be double teams worked his way. It will come with a price and he will be very good.
Q. What makes him so good, I asked him what he likes about sacks and he said he didn’t know, he just likes doing it.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Because he doesn’t know what makes him good at it. Then it’s very natural. It’s something that just occurs and it’s not programmed and it’s not planned. He recognizes things on the run, he makes adjustments on the run and because it is very natural, that’s why he’s good at it.
Q. Other than Orton and Stubblefield, what else concerns you about Purdue this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s not just a two-man show. If you notice their offense, they are averaging about over 600 yards a game in total offense and that’s unbelievable. And you don’t do that with just two guys. That takes a full complement of guys working very well together and they are playing very well together. Their defense is playing well, also. So it’s a total team. It’s not just a two-man operation.
Q. Are they doing anything different with Stubblefield this year, because he only had about five career touchdowns coming in; despite all of the receptions, he had he already has eight this year.
COACH WILLINGHAM: What’s a little different, if I’m correct there was another guy that they were in tandem with last year, that took not necessarily the majority of the receptions, but he had a pretty significant year. And now you have this guy stepping in into that role of leadership. He’s always been good, but now the light is on him to make the major plays for that football team, and I think he’s responded and they are responding by going to him more.
Q. What is it that makes him so good?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is quick, he is decisive, he has good hands and he has great confidence.
Q. Their third down conversion rate has been amazing so far this year, and I know in the past that’s something that Kent (Baer) has really emphasized. How do you work with a team to get it ready for those various third down situations defensively?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You try to look very carefully at what they do and see if you can identify a plan, a course of action that they will pursue to get first downs. Maybe there’s some habits or tendencies that they have that we can lock in on.
Q. Talk about defending home field. It was mentioned that Purdue has not won here since 1974. How much of an emphasis do you put on defending home turf, not just in games like this, but throughout the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s extremely important, because I guess if you can hold serve, is that what they say in tennis? You have a much better chance to win, and that’s what we want to do. We want to make our stadium a place that people fear coming in to play because you just can’t win here.
Q. Finally, my weekly question, what’s the status of Ryan Grant this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Do you remember the weekly answer?
Q. Yes, I do.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It hasn’t changed.
Q. Awhile back we talked about the turnovers that the 2002 team forced and the fact that it didn’t happen as much last year and I think you might have said something to the effect that it’s not something that you count on, but you certainly welcome. Is there something that a defense does that you see that can create that kind of climate, and what is this team doing to do that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Between 2002 and today, we’ve continued the same practice habits, working to facilitate getting fumbles and interceptions; so you are constantly working at that.
But a great deal of that has to do with the young men. It has to do with their confidence and their ability to take risks. I can go back to the Michigan State ballgame. (Tom) Zbikowski could have settled for a tackle, but he didn’t. He had enough confidence and he had enough presence to try to take that ball off, he picked it out cleanly and scored a touchdown.
Along with all of the drills and the work, the mindset, the confidence of the young men plays a huge part of that.
Q. Speaking of mindset, with the Syracuse game ending the way it did last year in December, the defense, you as a coach, I know the players, Kyle Budinscak mentioned they had a players-only meeting where they sat down and talked about what they with do in the off season. As a coach, what role do you take to bring a defense back from something like that, especially going into the off season like that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re trying to look at what you did poorly. You’re trying to look at statistics of that game, other games, correlations, and you try to get a strategy, what is best for us to do to be the team we’d like to be.
Q. And without sharing any secrets —
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know I hate to share secrets.
Q. Can you say what maybe your mindset was in terms of bringing them back?
COACH WILLINGHAM: To be more aggressive.
Q. You talked to them about that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, yes.
Q. I know that a lot of head coaches sometimes spend the majority of their time on one side of the ball or the other. I know you have both offense and defense in your assistant coaching background, do you pretty much split the time or do you lean one way or the other?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t lean one way or the other. And just for the record, there are three areas.
Q. Okay, yes and special teams. I also talked to Kyle (Budinscak) about they had this great mind set all summer and they were — just felt really good and confident about the defense and then he said, “You know, we got into the BYU game and it just was so deflating to lose that game,” but they were able to pick themselves back up. Can you talk about bringing them back? You mentioned, take a play out here or there, is that what you talk to your team about?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you speak of talking to the team and you focused on Kyle, everyone was disappointed about losing that football game. But at the same time from a defensive perspective, there were some very good things in there. And if you take away what maybe three big plays, you might have an outstanding defensive effort coming out of the BYU game.
If it was speaking to our defense, you encourage them to eliminate the big plays. If you’re speaking to our offense, you encourage them from the standpoint that there were, if I could say flashes, there were some things we felt like we could build on if we just keep coming. And special teams, you just focus on them trying to make better decisions coming out of that ballgame.
Q. Given what you know now about how your season has gone, if you were presented the opportunity to keep BYU at the end of October, move it up where Notre Dame did, do you feel good about the move up to beginning of the season? Do you feel good about how that’s played itself out?
COACH WILLINGHAM: One of the things that I tell our football team, and it is related to the question that you’re asking, is that we feel like we can defeat anyone. But we also feel like anyone can defeat us. So the movement of that game, it was the right thing for us to do.
Q. A couple last things —
COACH WILLINGHAM: It also needs to be added, because I think we get so one-sided on that question. But BYU wanted to move the game also.
Q. The freshman, Anthony Vernaglia, is he healthy and practicing now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is healthy and practicing and improving every day.
Q. And is he a strong safety right now? Is that —
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, he is.
Q. And just your general impressions of what he’s been doing in practice.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s been improving and getting better every day.
Q. Is there a chance you could use him to —
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s been improving and getting better every day.
Q. Okay. How about John Kadous? Obviously you don’t like to use a lot of freshman.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s just the progress for that position is so much more difficult. The game is so much faster for those guys than it is for anyone else. Therefore, the opportunities to get them in a position where they can play as a freshman is more difficult. So we never rule out anyone. It’s just a matter of how they come along and how they improve and how soon they get to that point where they are ready to play.
Q. Justin Hoskins, doing some kick returns, a little running back last week, is there any chance you’ll look at him as a possible receiver, not just out of the backfield, but lined up as a receiver?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There are a lot of things that I think Justin offers us and hopefully we’ll try to explore some of those. So I won’t say we will or we won’t.
Q. Going back to the question about coming off the BYU game, how much does your experience at Stanford help you bring your team back after a deflating opening season loss?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I’m more of the mindset that it’s the season that’s most important. And just like I said, or tried to indicate that when we defeated Michigan, one game does not a season make. Nor did the BYU make a season. If we come out and do the things that we can do, we’ll have an outstanding season.
Right now this ballgame that we’re playing against Purdue is that game. It’s that game, it can help us be the kind of team we’d like to be.
Q. And talking a little bit about John Sullivan, talking to Brady (Quinn) yesterday, he said that people on the team don’t look at him as a red shirt freshman, they just look at him as a leader.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re speaking of John Sullivan?
Q. Speaking of John (Sullivan) even though he’s only played four games.
COACH WILLINGHAM: We felt that at some point last year John might have been ready to step in and that was because of his maturity, the way he likes to work at what he was trying to do in the system, so he does have a little different look to his teammate than just a red-shirted freshman.
Q. What have been some of your impressions of him through four games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve been pleased with some of his play and I think there are some areas that he’s still growing in and will do nothing but get better.
Q. How do you coach a guy that — if you’re going make a mistake, make an aggressive mistake over a passive mistake, he seems to fit that bill pretty well. Not to encourage mistakes, but is that what you see out of him, as a guy who is being aggressive?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The position does not allow him to be aggressive all of the time and that’s what we try to encourage – for him to be aggressive. You want him to do so, but not make a mistake, because mistakes at that position, like all positions, can really kill you. You don’t want mistakes and you don’t want to emphasize mistakes and you don’t want to be overly-lenient when guys do make mistakes. But at the same time, you have to balance it by keeping him aggressive and keeping him confident and more than anything else make sure sees a clear picture, because that’s what slows the center down more than anything else is not having a clear picture.
Q. When it came to him being close to playing last year, what was your decision to not play him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Just didn’t think it was right. You get to a point that you don’t think it’s the right thing to do; that there were more benefits not to play him.
Q. The offensive line on a whole last three weeks, especially close to the end of the BYU game, Brady (Quinn) has a lot more time to look down the field. Do you see the line coming together on a whole right now in terms of their protection and just being able to work together and having some continuity there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We are improving, and I mean that; that they are getting better each ballgame. But we still have a lot of ground to cover.
Q. And in terms of freshmen, going back to the question about Anthony (Vernaglia) a little bit, when they are dinged up or injured a little bit during fall camp, could you talk about the added challenge that presents for them to get on the field, the ground they have to make up and how difficult it is to make it on?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The primary concern I have is the emotional, because for them it’s probably in most cases, the first time they have had an injury. It’s the first time they have not been in a position to start and kind of dictate their fate.
So there are a lot of emotions that go through those guys, and what we have to try to do is manage those. And if you can manage those, then they can keep their confidence, they can keep their drive, and eventually the talent and skill they have can come on.
Q. And can you talk about how you feel Chris Vaughn is coming on right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve been pleased with Chris. Chris is doing not a lot in the receiver core. He is getting some action there, but he’s really starting to show himself as a special teams player, and that is a great way to learn and develop and become a receiver.
Q. Darius (Walker) is probably another that when they were recruited, talked a lot about how they got the impression from Notre Dame that they were being recruited to come in and play right away, not to come in and sit. What a guy gets that impression whether you have told him directly —
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you know, I never say that.
Q. Do you feel when that impression is given off that they need to play; that you need to get them on the field at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. They will dictate at their own pace and their own time.
What we have to do is use all of our coaching tools to make sure that they can see the clear picture, and if they do, in most cases they are fine.
Q. Could you talk about Brandon Jones, talk about what type of running back he is?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is that added dimension that they need in that system. Because you hear so much and see so much about their passing attack, you kind of become deceived. What he does is add that aggressive dimension to their running attack, and I think they are averaging 200 yards a game rushing and that to me is outstanding. So he has the real teeth to their offensive attack, when you add that factor of being able to run the ball and then complement it as well as they throw it.
Q. Talking about (Purdue), this is the first year the playbook has opened up that Kyle (Orton) is that good, is it a bigger playbook than in the past?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would probably believe that he stretched it outside of the playbook. He’s probably added a few they didn’t have in there, and it’s just because of his experience and his knowledge of the game to take advantage of things that they have not even scripted, double-checked, even coordinated some things outside of their playbook.
Q. How about Brady (Quinn), since the last time he played Purdue, how much has he grown?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In that ballgame, when you don’t have the ability to run the ball or move away from the run too quickly, it puts your quarterback in the situation that he’s got to carry the team. And under those circumstances, I thought Brady did a marvelous job in playing and having poise and putting us in a position to try to win the football game.
Q. Do you see him looking forward the game a little bit, as he looked back and saw what happened last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our team is looking forward to this game.
Q. Talking about the Purdue offense a little bit, the type of stress a scheme like that puts on the defense and how you deal with that, especially when you get into that chess match, sort of subtracting players and maybe some of your better players the defensive backs, and then you look at your running game and their running is more than solid?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What they do, with their style of offense and the formations and the personnel, they expand and cover the entire field. Somebody has kind of called that style basketball at football or basketball on grass, or something of that nature.
When you have to defend the whole field, and then you can have a strong running attack, you put the maximum pressure on the defense possible and that’s what they do.
Q. You didn’t want to talk about the offensive struggles in the third quarter on Saturday, but after looking at the film what are impressions of what happened in the third quarter?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We just didn’t execute. There were some things that we felt like we could have had that we could have missed whether it was a throw or pass or protection or the block, etc., that we just missed. And to be consistent, you have to make those plays.
Q. Is that the next step for this offense to, do it for a complete football game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that would be one of the steps. We are always pointing our team towards consistency and that more consistent if it would come, it would lead to us have more success throughout an entire football game.
Q. Matt Shelton coming into the season has four career receptions coming into the season and has become one of the go-to guys on the offense. What does he do and when did he really start to emerge? Because I know it says in the media guide he became better at coming back to the ball in spring practice, was that it, was that sort of the last cog to getting him out there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It started somewhere in the middle of last year and toward the latter part when we played Stanford, you saw him make some big plays. He has just been steadily improving and becoming better at his route running, becoming better at his toughness, becoming better at making the tough catch. And with that he’s put himself in a position that there is a lot of confidence in his ability to make a play.
Q. One of his teammates said that without his pads on you would not necessarily know he was a football player. Can you talk — in that way, he’s bigger, but a little bit like Joey Getherall who played at Notre Dame, a smaller guy who could go out will and create some magic. Could you talk about some of your guys that that you have coached that have fit that mold?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We had one that I would probably draw comparisons to would probably be Troy Walters. Troy was a very small man, but like Matt, he played big. If you talk to him, would you probably think — and not necessarily through his comments — but you would get the feeling that he’s kind of 6’3, but he’s nothing close to that. They play big and have confidence and work extremely hard to perfect their skills.
Q. Talking about the Purdue offense a little bit, it covered each of the first three games, Kyle has gotten the ball to nine different receivers and they are averaging 200 yards rushing but with three tailbacks; is that harder to prepare for than, say, a team that has one superstar receiver or one superstar tailback?
COACH WILLINGHAM: All of those are difficult. Superstar, the one guy, can make it extremely tough. I can remember once putting the triple team on Keyshawn Johnson and he still made the play. So they are all equally tough to defend.
But when you have more weapons and more people you can go to, it really keeps a team off-balance. And when you have three backs and you have four or five major receivers that you can count on, it makes things very difficult.
Q. If there was one piece of advice this week that you want your defensive backs to take into the weekend, what would it be?
COACH WILLINGHAM: One piece of advice? Be aggressive.
Q. Is it as simple as, you know, try to limit the big plays? You hear that a lot, keep the receivers in front of you, that kind of thing. Will you go over those types of things when it comes to strategy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, all of those things are easy to say and hard or difficult to do when you face good people. And we will be facing good people. So when you want to be aggressive, you don’t want to give up big plays and want to keep the ball always in front of us, those are all things that we will discuss with our defensive backs and our entire defense.
Q. How much of a competitor has Purdue kind of become with Notre Dame when it comes to recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We run into each other on occasion.
Q. Do you think it’s become more competitive under Joe Tiller?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Coach Tiller has done an excellent job down there, and it demonstrated itself in the fact that I think they have seven Bowl games maybe in the last seven or eight years.
So, no, he has done a great job in resurrecting that program and making it competitive in all aspects.
Q. You’ve been in a major conference, and now obviously you’re not, but what are the differences in the dynamics for a coach in a situation that Notre Dame is in?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Obviously in a conference, there is a little bit more to play for to some degree. You have a conference title that is always at stake, as well as a national opportunity.
We have the national opportunities and our pride which will be the major things that we will put in front of our young men.
Q. Is there more pressure, because if you’re in a league like the Pac 10, you’re going to get — the financial windfall is going to be the same almost regardless of where you finishing. Notre Dame, your football team kind of has hold of the pursestrings of the entire athletic department depending if you go to the BCS or go to a smaller Bowl, it’s, etc., does that manifest itself in pressure of you and your staff?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. But our preference would always be to get the highest ranking Bowl we could.
Q. Until you came along, the tight end has been an afterthought in Notre Dame’s offense, but Anthony (Fasano) seems to have changed all that. Could you talk about his contributions and what he brings to the table?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, our tight ends are probably still claiming they are an afterthought. They are looking for a little bit more action, but we’ve been very blessed. We’ve got, at this time a pretty deep tight end corps. Unfortunately we will lose three of them at the end of the year, three seniors, (Jared) Clark, (Billy) Palmer and (Jerome) Collins. But we have got a pretty good group. Anthony and Marcus Freeman have played, as well as the other members of the group. And when we play well, it allows us to involve them more in our system, and in most defenses, that is one area that is difficult to defend, a good tight end.
Q. Could you talk about Jeff Samardzija, is he maybe on the verge of a break through, he’s caught seven passes in the last two games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I would label what Jeff has done as a breakthrough. I think Jeff has been pretty good and pretty consistent for us all the time. I have labeled Jeff very simply a winner, in that if you put him in position to make plays, he makes plays.