"Thank you for taking the time to come to our media day," said Willingham. "I and our coaches and our players are very excited about the start of the 2003 season. So far we've been at work for four days. Things have gone well and (we) are eager to kick it into what will be are two-a-day process which will begin tomorrow morning."
Julius Jones was a big hit today and reporters swarmed him for interviews. Willingham said he excited to have Julius back. "First of all, we are excited to have Julius back but what we do in our program is to let our players decide on those issues," said Willingham on his plans for using Jones. "As we are pleased with Julius to come back, we are also pleased with our other backs. Ryan Grant, as you know who rushed for near 1,100 yards and also Marcus Wilson. We've got some backs that we are pleased with so far in camp. They're all doing a great job."
The 2002 squad didn't have the luxury of time and repetition in the new system and the offense suffered because of it. The 2003 squad has had time to learn the new system and Willingham believes his team is further along in their understanding of the system. "I don't know if I can put a percentage on it or rate it but I'm very pleased with how our team has come back in terms of physical conditioning, they understand how we practice, how we go about doing things, they've been well prepared. Mickey Marotti, our strength and conditioning coach has done a great job of getting them prepared. Also understanding our system—which is offense, our defense and special teams--we're a little farther along than we were a year ago at this time."
Willingham says that the playbook hasn't been the problem—the execution has. "The whole key is how you execute. To be very honest with you, I would love it if we only had one play in our system. If we had perfect execution of that play and our opponent could not stop it, I'd be very happy with that."
The Irish are not ranked very high in the preseason polls and quite a few sportswriters and magazines are not very high on the Irish for 2003. Willingham was asked his thoughts on their predictions. "I think I could imagine at some point last year Ohio State was not projected to be the National Champion. I think they surprised even their most stern critic so maybe there is a shot for somebody else to do something along those lines."
The offensive line has been a hot topic all fall and Willingham says he's excited about his offensive line. "Number one, I'm excited about the young men that we have in our offensive line. I think they have one of the ultimate challenges that we face this year. Anytime you lose four young men to the NFL, those are major losses. I think our coaches and the young men themselves are equal to the challenge—preparing and getting themselves in position for us to have a very solid offensive line."
The 2002 Irish won a lot of games with a stout defense, an opportunistic defense and probably a little bit of luck. Willingham was asked if the offense would have to step up this year if they hoped to have the same type of season. "I would add an opportunistic offense also because I think our offense did some great things and I don't think you take it for granted. Anytime you are able to produce an almost 1,100 yard rusher I think that says something. Do we have to be better, yes. We have to be better on offense, we have to be better on defense and we have to be better on special teams. The schedule we have is challenging to say the least so we've got to be better in every area."
The Irish face Washington State on September 6th as their first game of the season. Willingham said he doesn't concentrate on a stretch of games but tries to focus on the next game. Still, he said that first game is always critical and what his team will focus on now and until the end of fall camp. "You're always concerned about first ball game because that gets you off. You want to get momentum; you want to build into the season. We've got a heck of a first game we think with a pretty good opponent in Washington State. If you want to add stretch to it, Michigan follows that and that is another pretty good football team."
Willingham said this team could be very good if they just execute. He was asked if this team could compete for the National Championship. "I think if this team executes and does all the things that it has to do, is lucky, makes things happen in a timely manner, this could be a good team."