Nov. 2, 2004
An Interview With:
COACH Tyrone Willingham
Q. Coaches usually say that they don’t change a game plan from one quarterback to another, but it appears in Tennessee’s case that that clearly is the case with Brent Schaeffer and Ainge. What have you noticed with that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t think there’s any question about that. But what you have to factor in there is the fact that the young men and their perspective may change the game plan.
If you look at their game plan, they do a lot of things with movement of the quarterback. But yet one of those guys, his perception, his view may be that run is the option before pass is the option. Yet it can still be the same play and the same call but a totally different option.
Q. So you think it’s less by design and more by the athlete making the choice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m just saying include both. Because if you looked at those two guys, you would have different game plans for what they do well.
Q. So it is helpful to you knowing that you only have one game plan for this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Speaking with Brady (Quinn) yesterday about the West Coast offense and getting the ball, throwing the ball to the running back, he said that the running backs have stayed in on pass blocking more this year. Could you elaborate on that, and is that an aspect of your offense that you feel still needs to be developed in terms of throwing the football?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There is no question. We need to find more ways to incorporate our backs in our passing game. And we have to do that. That is something that hopefully we keep growing and doing so that we can do it better. We would love to have the ability to take some of our backs and do what we call the “option route,” give them that choice and really make our defense vulnerable. There’s some things we’re going to, more screens, etc., things that we want to do more of.
Q. Ryan Grant said yesterday that he might be inclined down the road when his playing days are over to get into coaching. Who are some of the players on this team that come to mind immediately to you that might be the kind of personality that would fit into the coaching world down the road?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You almost have to include all personalities, so you can’t really limit anyone on personality. But there’s some guys that kind of are technicians and really look at the game through a different set of eyes. One you’ve already mentioned, Grant.
I think receiver-wise, you like guys that in a sense are kind of hidden that you might not think anything of. A guy that comes to mind would be, he’s very bright, might be Michael Harris, a guy that you look back and say, hmm, oh, yes, I think he would be one.
Offensive line I can think of Bob Morton as a candidate, I would think that would be one of those kind of guys. Defensively, any of your linebackers you can see them fitting into that because of the leadership qualities and some of the safeties.
Q. Since the Boston College game, there’s been a lot of speculation about some athletes and football players who may have gotten into some trouble off the field. Is there any reason to believe that there are going to be any players this week that won’t participate because of that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. Coach Dietrich said last week there could be some changes for offensive starters, they were looking at everything, looking at the start, doesn’t look like there were any, was it a case of everybody —
COACH WILLINGHAM: Those decisions haven’t been finalized yet. We start the week off with what we think, as we start the week who will be the starting group, and as we progress through, we can see how they track what they do and then we’ll look at it and see. In the vast majority of cases, those will probably come just before the game, once we have seen exactly how things worked out this week.
Q. Is it a case that you think that the offense needs a change because the defense is struggling?
COACH WILLINGHAM: “Struggle” is probably a correct word to some degree because we have been inconsistent. Sometimes we have done things well and we have had some moments where we’ve moved the ball and done some things, then all of a sudden we’ve not. It’s always nice to get an infusion of new gloves or somebody with new energy to pick you up a little bit.
But we’ve got to look at Tennessee more than anything else, and probably look and see who are our best matchups versus Tennessee, in all our areas, to make sure we are the best we can be.
Q. Playing in Tennessee, anything special this week you’ll do?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You have to make some special preparations and then we’ve got to work around our own weather and depends what their weather will be. But it comes to everybody’s attention. We anticipate that with 104,000 to 109,000 people, it’s going to be loud. And we’ve got to prepare our guys to be poised for that situation and not create some of the little mistakes that can take you out of drives or create inconsistency in your offense. All of a sudden you’re looking up at first and 10 and now you’re looking at first and 15. We will take some precautions in our practice to see if we can guard against that.
Q. Working on calls, working on signals?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, all of the above.
Q. What other types of places are tough?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think LSU was one of the ones in the Southeast when I was in that part of the country. Clemson was tough. Michigan was tough. Washington was tough. Those would be a few around the country, but I hear this one is considered one of the toughest.
Q. When you go in a place like that, does it feel good when you don’t hear the crowd and it’s quiet and you realize —
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is the goal of everybody football team, to contain them and to have a nice, quiet stadium.
Q. Notre Dame is 25-2 after the bye week; any idea why so successful coming off an off-week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The extra time gives your guys a little bit more time to focus on that one opponent. Whereas you may have only three or four days of preparation for most teams, and now you have a chance to gain two additional days. Depending on how you structure your plan, that helps. That’s beneficial.
Q. Talking to the players yesterday, asking them what they felt they needed to do to be successful this weekend, and I think they mentioned getting off to a quick start, having a balanced offense with the run and the pass and then limiting their big plays, most of the things that have been talked about throughout the year. I know every week is a test, but is this week really a good way for you to judge how much this team has improved since the start of the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know how much we have improved, but I think it’s going to judge how we play against another top team. I think we’ve got the ninth- or 11th-ranked team in the country. They play good football in all aspects. Their punter is good. Their kicker is probably maybe the one inconsistent area they have had.
Defensively they are big. They are athletic up front. Their backers are extremely quick, secondary is solid. Offensively their running game is very good, so there’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a real test for us as a football team.
Q. Is one of the goals of the bye week is to get everyone healthy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We are returning in pretty good shape, but we have been fortunate we have not had any major, truly major injuries to our starters this year. We have had some bumps and bruises and nicks but we have not had anybody that’s missed, truly missed — I think (Anthony) Fasano, the tight end, missed a week or two. (Marcus) Freeman may have missed some, but other than that, we have been by and large pretty good. So we went in not bad, but hopefully we come out a lot better.
Q. What’s the status on (Marcus) Freeman?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re going to see. He’s going to start the week working and we’ll see how he progresses to the end of the week.
Q. Ryan (Grant) sat out those two early games at the same time Darius (Walker) burst on to the scene a little bit; is it easier for fans to overlook the response of what Ryan adds to this offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it is. First of all, you have to take into account the role of the senior, and the role of the senior is not just on the field. It’s what he provides off the field and in the locker room and the kind of play that we have got now with Ryan has been very solid for us in all areas. It was almost easier for many to forget that two years ago he was a 1,000-yard rusher. It’s easy to overlook. I don’t know if it’s his personality or the way he carries himself, but you have that tendency. But he adds a great deal to our football team in terms of pass protection and in terms of understanding pass routes where he can go, where he can’t go.
The question came up about getting backs involved. Well, he’s one that knows where he’s supposed to be and what he has to do, and that is very helpful.
Q. Talking about (Ryan) Grant, address a little bit about his coaching. What specifically do you see in him that maybe he might be a good coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It would be the word `understanding.’ You have to kind of understand not just the game but understand people, also, and he has some of that in his background.
Q. His whole career, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster somewhat, with the 1,000-yard season and then Julius (Jones) comes back and he is kind of relegated and then this year the injury.
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing would I say is that for most of the student athletes, it is a roller coaster. Hopefully there are a lot more good days than bad days, but there are going to be moments, moments that you don’t shine, moments that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on and what the process holds for you.
But what Ryan has done, and I think what he might say, if I could say it for him, is that the Notre Dame experience has helped make him a man and it’s helped mature him and learn to really understand the ups and downs of football and hopefully he can take that into life.
Q. What do you say the team is 4-1 when he starts, and 2-4 when he sat out with injury?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all scream at, Coach Willingham: “Get him healthy and get him in the lineup.” That would be number one.
Number two, though, it would give you – and you can’t always put all of it on one person because as you we all know that’s not the game of football, that’s not the real beauty of the game – but we do know that one person does make a difference (and Ryan can do that with) his leadership and how he impacts a football team with his performance.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about (Brady) Quinn, what you’ve seen from him this year and what you would like to see in these last few games from him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I said that the best thing about Brady is that he’s a winner. And I continue to see all of those qualities exhibited, not just in his play, but also in how he interacts with his teammates, etc. What I would like to see, though, is the continued improvement, continued growth in Brady; and the word that I always say to our quarterbacks and especially to Brady, which are some of the most key words that you can ever tell a quarterback, always take what they give you. Sometimes you want to press the action, you want to make things happen. But if you take what they give you, you usually end up with a great deal.
Q. You touched on Ainge earlier. Can you talk about what maybe allows him to play at the level he is as a true freshman?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, he’s a quality quarterback, and is a quarterback that understands their system to a certain degree. I don’t think he understands all of it yet, but he has a pretty good grasp on what he is asked to do in their system and hopefully he is not doing things outside of the system, which allows him to be successful and the team to be successful. Then I think he is successful because he has a pretty good supporting cast around him. So if you don’t score many points against them with their defense, it makes it a little bit easier for their offense to have success.
Q. You talked about the role of your seniors on your team, can you talk about what you’ve seen from them in maybe the last ten days in terms of leadership and such?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They have continued to do all of the things that I ask them to do, which is number one, work hard, and set the tone for our football team and the direction our football team wants to go. They have continued to do that all year, not just the last 10 days.
Q. Did you do some recruiting or work on some recruiting during the extra time, and if so, how have you been perceived during that time? Any different than early in the season, or is it about the same?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The reception has been pretty much the same. I did not personally go on the road. We did have six of our coaches on the road around the country talking to high school players and coaches and viewing their games. I think the reception was well.
Q. Carlyle Holiday, he’s winding down his career and I know that he’s changed positions and done a lot of different things. Can you talk about him and what he’s trying to accomplish here, the last part of his career?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What Carlyle is trying to do is really finish strong with these three remaining games that we have, seeing as he can make his impact in the special teams really `special’ in these last three ballgames. For our role, it will be to see if we can find ways to implement him a little bit more in the offensive scheme.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Freddie Parish. Where do you see him right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s right in the middle of our strong safety situation. He and Tommy (Zbikowski) will probably, I won’t say trade time, but there are some things that may happen that give (Freddie) a lit bit more time on the field.
Q. You mentioned you wanted to involve him more, Carlyle, honestly it would be tough to involve him less from the line of scrimmage considering he’s only had two touches from the line of scrimmage so far this year. Are you surprised or disappointed that you had not been able to give him the ball more from the line of scrimmage?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Tou’d like to have him involved some more, yes. But at the same time, we have done a pretty good job of distributing the ball to (Matt) Shelton, to (Rhema) McKnight and even (Maruice) Stovall and on top of that, (Anthony) Fasano. It is only one ball, okay. There are some things that (Carlyle) can do and we think he can do, and we just need to give him that opportunity.
Q. We’ve talked about the struggles with consistency on drives, and you’ve also kind of struggled a little the bit on having by place from the line of scrimmage, you’re averaging about three a game. When you take a look at who you want to put in that starting lineup this weekend, which way do you go a little more, do you look for somebody that can give that you spark for the big play or are you looking for somebody that can be the more consistent player?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You need both and the key is to do it in a timely manner, so that you can insert that guy, that can give you the big play at the right time, based on what you’re seeing from their defense. And yet at the same time, you do need a certain amount of consistency because we want to keep the ball in our hands as much as possible.
Q. Do you see time of possession as a big factor in this week’s game, trying to keep that offense off the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you notice, their time of possession is about even, if I’m correct, and maybe even the opponents lead in that. But the whole key is going to be: score touchdowns when you have opportunities.
Q. Conversely let’s talk about the defense a little bit. In the first four games, you had 16 turnovers from your defense and you’ve only had three in the last four. For the last two weeks that has been a point of emphasis in practice, and what are some of the things that you do in terms of drills and things like that to try to create those kind of turnovers?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing is that you always talk about the attitude. You’ve got to get where your whole defensive team is flying around and zipping around for the football. When you start getting more young men around the ball, you can get one guy to tackle and one guy to rip for the ball or you get better breaks on your pass routes if everybody is focused and seeing things in your zone coverage and even tighter man coverage. So first thing is attitude. And second is you practice the fundamentals and techniques of trying to get those turnovers.
Q. I don’t want to infer anything from that answer, so are you saying that that attitude or those techniques have not been there the last four games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. We are always trying to get it. Our players go out (looking for it) every game. But it’s always a point of emphasis to refocus your team on those things; strive to get those things all the time.
Q. And have you voted?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, I did. I stood in the poll line from 6:15 until 6:45.
Q. Would you talk about the development of Maurice Stovall from the first time you initially got him three years ago to what you’re seeing from him now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In most minds, you look to Maurice when he arrived and probably thought that this was a young man that was already fully developed and already there.
So your expectations probably exceeded his youth because when Maurice came to us, I think if I’m correct, he was late 16-year-old, maybe late 17-year-old in that area. So he was still very young for a young man to be in his position.
And what I’ve seen from him is just continued growth and continued development, not just mentally but physically. And now he is starting to really approach the kind of football career that I think he can have.
Q. Talking about your running backs and how you’d like to get him more involved in the passing game, just knowing what I know about Justin Hoskins, is he a guy that you think might be able to help in that and if so, what has kept him off the field from actually being a player in the passing game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Justin has a lot of prerequisites that you look for. The quickness, the explosiveness, he has a lot of that, and down the road we are going to see some things from him in that area. The thing that he needs to continue to do is learn the system and understand the system, and there’s going to be some maturity in him that’s going to take place that’s really going to allow him to be the player that he can be.
Q. Can you expand on how much that can open up your offense if you have him in the flat or to stretch him out a little bit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s not just having him in the flat because sometimes they are in the flat, but sometimes it’s there, getting the ball to them and then having them do something with it. That’s the whole key is the yards after the catch that makes all the difference in that kind of route and that kind of involvement in your offensive system.
Q. How much do you think that would help your offense if you had that (yards after the catch)? It’s hard to put a percentage or anything like that —
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is. It’s hard to do that, so I can’t do it. But would it help? Absolutely. Because it gives you another option.
Q. Talked to Ara Parseghian yesterday, heading to Florida, said he mentioned to you that he will think of you every day, as shooting his age over the next five months down there.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He does that all the time.
Q. We talked about what he did there in the 60s when he was hired here in Notre Dame to turn around the Notre Dame football program, how he asked for a three-year contract and was given that because he felt that that’s all he would need as far as turning it around and that he would know which way things would fall. Your present day situation, do you subscribe to the notion that under a particular coaching staff for that three years, you can tell where things are going after three years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know what, I’m not sure. Because I think that times have changed since then. Sometimes you see it happen sooner, based on the variables and sometimes it doesn’t.
Q. With that said, since you and your staff were hired almost four years ago, do you feel like you’re any closer to returning to college football team of the week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We do. We’ve seen some improvement in some areas and in some areas not.
Q. And the inconsistency, is that pretty much the thing that has really held you back as far as where you wanted to take it, where you could see it, 33 games into it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say probably yes on that. Because it keeps you from being the consistent winner and creating that momentum that you need.
Q. And last, I know I’m going a little broader scope here but Notre Dame has not won a National Championship in 16 years, has not won a Bowl game since the first day of 1993, could you see how people at home, people that die for the blue and gold are starting to lose faith in the football program overall, not just in the last short term, but just long term?
COACH WILLINGHAM: For this program, I would think 16 years is a long time to go without a National Championship.
Q. So you could see how people — there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there right now, could you see why that is developing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: 16 years is a long time to go without a National Championship.
Q. You touched on this earlier about what you need to do at a place like Tennessee, but going on the road, particularly in a place like that, is it imperative to get the running game moving consistently, because that seems to quiet the crowd more than anything.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s going to be important for us to keep this particular team off balance. Because of their style of play and the athletes that they have in their system, we just can’t go and pound it at them. We have to have the ability yes, to return, but at the same time, include in there all aspects of our offense and keep them off balance and hopefully stay one step ahead of them.
Q. And you’ve talked about, also, the ability of the bye week to get you healthy. I know you probably haven’t seen them on the field yet, but has Ryan Grant been the benefited greatly from that, because it seems like every week he doesn’t play he gets a little bit better than if he had to play and recover.
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you mentioned, I have not seen him on the field and we’ll do that this afternoon. But just in talking with Ryan, I think he says that he feels the best he has felt prior to the injury.
Q. Talking to some of your players yesterday, they seem think that not having to face Brent Schaeffer this week is going to make their task at least a little easier defensively. Can you talk about what Tennessee’s offense loses when he’s unavailable as he will be this weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, what you lose if he’s not in there is a guy that instantly puts pressure on every aspect of your defense. His ability to come in and run the football really gives you almost like another halfback in the lineup.
Sitting watching football with my son on Saturday, the thing we were talking about is one of those plays that you can use to run out the clock. Or one of those plays that you can gain an advantage with is just a simple quarterback sweep, because now you have the additional blocker in the backfield. And when you have Schaeffer in the lineup that is a play that becomes very active even though they don’t necessarily run a quarterback sweep, but they do it with his drop-back; and maybe his first option is not to pass, but to run.
Q. You had to coach a freshman quarterback last year and this year you’ll be facing at least one freshman quarterback in Ainge. What are the keys to getting freshmen to the point where he looks like he is now, where he can lead the team and knows how to succeed and can handle the pressure situation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if you ever truly accomplish that in the first year. It’s a real learning process that the young man goes through because the first time you step in that huddle, obviously for most of the guys in that huddle, you have not done anything for them to feel that comfortable with. But in time, you have success and they grow to become very comfortable with and you trust your leadership.
What they are doing is going through those stages right now. But the number one thing is if you can have good plays and not make a lot of mistakes, and that’s the one thing that you’ve seen from I am him, he’s been capable of not creating a big play turnaround mistake for them that’s allowed them to be successful.
Q. Coach said yesterday that Justin (Tuck’s) sack numbers may be down but his impact continues to grow, the way he impacts the offense and the intimidation factor he brings. Can you talk about how you measure Justin’s progress this year, as he is being more and more double-teamed and sack numbers are perhaps not as high as they have been in the past?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There are some things to include in there because we have tried very diligently on our part to make sure we have had a fresh Justin Tuck in there.
So we have rotated him in many of those ballgames to make sure he’s at his best and is also having the opportunity to really recover from his knee injury a year ago. And we’ve done that both with Kyle (Budinscak) and Justin. What you see in Justin is his explosiveness creates a problem for the offense, and so you have to kind of keep a back aware of him. You have to make sure that they turn the protection to him and sometimes that affects the numbers.
But it does not affect Justin’s attitude and the manner which he plays the game. When you can play it hard that will bring a real example to your teammates of how you play the game and he’s done that.
Q. Kyle (Budinscak) said that when they are at the line of scrimmage, a lot of times the guys, or the guy who is lined up across from Justin, will cheat off a little bit and that the rest of the defense picks up on that.
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you have any clue of that nature, can probably tell you exactly what’s taken place, particularly in the area of run or pass. And that little clue can help the other guy know what’s coming; and therefore, be better prepared to react so had hopefully makes our entire defense a lot quicker and exposes what the offense is trying to do.
Q. Does anything change in your preparation during a bye week, is it two weeks of preparing for Tennessee or do you sake some of the time to look at yourselves? How does that work?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In our case, the number one thing you want to do is get healthy. My players will probably dispute that in terms of my focus. But that is goal number one to try to get healthy.
Goal number two is try to work on, at least your upcoming opponent and maybe something else that you factor into your system.
And then number three is to try to get some work for our young men that have not received a lot of work, many of our freshmen and some of our backups, try to get them some game like situations that they can hopefully grow in. So that is what we try to do in this particular bye week.
Q. So it’s not just two weeks of focusing on Tennessee, it’s a little bit of everything?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It could be. We probably put more of our attention more of our focus on Tennessee than health and development issues
Q. Obviously, you said that the loss to BC was a tough one. How much extra pressure does that create within the program losing that game and given the tough schedule that lies ahead?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s no question. We’ve known from day one that we’ve faced probably the second toughest schedule in the country when we started, and at some point it turned into the toughest schedule in the country. So we’ve known that aspect has always been there.
The thing that Boston College would have given us, it would have given us our six wins and put us Bowl eligible right then and there. So it’s delayed that process and now we’ve got to go out against two ranked teams in the next three weeks and put ourselves in a Bowl position.
Q. How difficult is it though not let the pressure that loss creates creep into the guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s something that is obviously there because at some point our guys read or listen and hear things that are said. But you have to be able to respond to that.
But with our young men coming to Notre Dame, that kind of prepares you, or at least sets the table for that kind of preparation; that this is a big-time environment and you are always under scrutiny on the eye of the media, in the eye of the Notre Dame family. So our young men are prepared for that.
Q. When it comes to cornerbacks, specifically, whether it be in recruiting or moving a guy from a different position, what kind of personality traits do they need to have that are unique to that position?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You like a guy that is extremely tough, extremely resilient. The term that most people use when they talk about that position is that he has a short memory, because you recognize at some point that he’s on an island and that he is vulnerable. And if he does get beat, you want to have him have the type of personality that he can bounce back as though nothing ever happened.
Q. Is that something that you can discover about a guy before he goes into and experiences that in a game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if he can. It’s something that’s really displayed over time. You really start to get to know the young man and find out his makeup. Some have it. Some don’t have it. Some do it better than others.
Q. How would you assess Dwight Ellick and Preston Jackson so far this season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve had some ups and downs and we’re continuing to work hard and try to get their absolute best.
Q. Have they given you pretty much what you expected that they would?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m always expecting more, and I feel very comfortable that those two guys are not satisfied with what they have given of themselves or our football team as of today.