The hiring of Willingham last year created quite a buzz. His 10-win season was the most for any rookie head coach in Notre Dame history. Willingham described his focus and mission for spring practice. "Our focus for the most point remains very much the same," he said. "It's figure out a way to develop a football team who can win its next game."
Willingham elaborated a little more on where he hopes the team can improve. "What we've got to do is become much better in all areas of just the basic fundamentals. We've got to improve our foundation because in doing that it gives us an opportunity to be a much stronger team as we go through the year. As I said, that process really begins in spring practice."
The offensive line was a hot topic and Willingham realizes the task at hand. The Irish will be replacing four starters along the offensive line in Brennan Curtin, Jordan Black, Jeff Faine and Sean Mahan; all of which had started at least the last two years and logged over 3000 minutes of playing time. "When you look at our offensive line, there is significant amount of turnover," said Willingham. "I think we are replacing basically four of the five interior positions so continuity I hope is not as important this year as we say it is other years. The difficulty is that there is no substitute for experience. When you got guys that have been in Michigan Stadium, or down in Tallahassee or in the Coliseum, there is not substitute for that. That is a certain amount of calm that comes with you when you have been there."
The job won't be easy getting these young linemen ready to play. "It comes down to the right amount of individual instruction and group instruction," Willingham said. "Seeing if you can combine those so that individual gets the proper amount of work within that group so we can develop as a group. At the same time giving him what he needs as an individual."
Without much experience along the offensive line, one would expect to see a lot of position switching and tinkering to find the right combination. Dan Stevenson has mainly been an offensive guard but switched to offensive tackle in the Gator Bowl with the suspension of Brennan Curtin. "There is chance (of switching back to offensive guard) that not only Stevenson but a lot of the young men on the offensive line. We don't have our best combination yet and this spring practice is going to lead us in a lot of directions."
The Irish struggled on offense last year ranking 108th in total offense. With the offense now familiar to his players, Willingham has an idea of what areas need to be addressed for the offense to improve. "To some degree it may require more fundamental teaching than last year. In some cases you are trying to get the scheme in. That becomes your focus to make sure you get things to guys and they can understand how to implement the system. Now with the system in place maybe it allows us a better opportunity to really go back and focus on the things that are really important to the execution. So I think it's going to be very much a combination of basic fundamentals and at the same time you do have some exposure from our team to the system and to the scheme and now hopefully taking it one step farther."
While the offense has struggled, Willingham believes in his system and doesn't plan on any changes this year. "Well, hopefully it's a refinement that has to take place. We've gone from a major offensive introduction standpoint when major components were put in. Now you have got to really understand how to execute those components and then see if we can bring our system into fold. If we can do that which means that now we are getting our quarterbacks, our running backs, our line and our receivers all on the same page. All understanding spacing, all understanding protection, then we've got a better chance to be a better offensive team."
The Irish defense was the strong point last year and Willingham has the same philosophy towards the defense. "I would say we start out with the fundamentals," he said. "To make sure we are really strong in our fundamentals and then looking to see if we can bring some fresh bodies into the fold because we do lose a couple guys on our defense that I thought were big time players."
Once again, the status of Julius Jones came up and Willingham answered the question much the same way he did after recruiting signing day. "That is an issue that the University and Julius will be dealing with and at the appropriate time. If he is approved by the University, then he will be back as a member of our football team."
The Irish will lose some inspirational leadership from the team in Shane Walton and Jeff Faine this year. Leadership is always important to any football team and Willingham had an interesting philosophy in that area. "I'm not looking right now. I think what you do is let leadership unfold when leadership is most needed," he said. "I think it's great to have leadership during winter workouts but you need leadership most when you play the game. Monday, we start playing the game. When we come out of that process where you are playing football and not lifting weights or running around the track, then I have a better evaluation on leadership."
At this time last year, the staff faced a lot of unknowns about the team. The coaches were getting to know the players and the team was starting to trust the coaches. Willingham sees the advantage of continuity and his coaches understanding the individual players. "Having greater insight into our young people is a real plus. I think they know the personalities of our guys a lot better and hopefully we can push all the right buttons to develop every guy on our squad. We are believers that you are only as strong as your weakest link. If we can have our weakest link extremely strong then we can become a much better football team.
One easily noticeable improvement last year was the attitude of the football team. The 2002 Irish football team played with a passion and desire that hasn't been seen since the Lou Holtz days. Willingham talked about capturing that edge needed. "We will be creatively thinking about that, how to create that edge. In most cases, when you name the teams on our schedule, that usually gives you a pretty good edge."
Willingham has a difficult task ahead. The Irish have talent on the offense but for Holiday and the offense to improve, he will need some help along the offensive line.
Spring practice is the time for teaching fundamentals. The real teaching of the coaching position happens during spring practice. The staff will teach in the fall as well but with Michigan looming on the schedule, they will quickly have to focus on the daunting task of entering Michigan Stadium with four new starters along the offensive line.