The Irish football team will gather on Tuesday for their first practice of the season at 2:15 PM. Willingham and his team are hoping to erase some bad memories from last season with a good start to 2004. The Irish will try to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 season in 2003 with a new attitude, and are hoping to build on the experience of 2003.
Coach Tyrone Willingham spoke about the 2004 season being the next step in building the Irish program.
"When you talk about any transition, what you're trying to create more than anything else is a mindset within your organization," Willingham said. "For us, what we call the cornerstone of our program, are four things: a championship, great academics, great people and having fun.
"As we move toward those things, we're getting closer and closer each day to being able to accomplish those things by creating the right mindset to accomplish them."
The Irish will open the season on the road on September 4th with a game against BYU. The game with the Cougars has been moved from its originally scheduled date of October 30th.
"Even though I am delighted we have that change in position, I'm very cautious," Willingham said of the change of date. "The reason I say that is because one can begin to believe that that is a change dictated for Michigan. That's not the case. If we're thinking about Michigan when we're playing BYU, that is a very serious mistake."
With the Irish losing 10 out of their last 17 games under Willingham, the pressure to win has to be mounting on this Irish staff. Willingham says he doesn't feel any extra pressure heading into this season.
"What I focus on is the positive," Willingham said. "Whatever is said, you take it and you learn from it and you make yourself and the program stronger.
"But in terms of the pressure aspect of it, if you're going to tell me that the pressure on Coach Willingham was any different today than the day he arrived, then it's news to me."
Willingham did single out the results from spring practice are reasons for Irish fans to be hopeful in 2004.
"Based on what we did in the spring, I was very pleased with how our guys began to execute the system, the spacing," said Willingham when asked if his team had a better understanding of the offense. "I often compare it to basketball, running a fast break. Most teachers tell you that you have to hit the lane the right way, you like the ball to come down the center, you like that guy on the wing, you like that guy on the wing, now you got spaces to make things happen.
"The same thing is true of our passing game. Our guys have to understand, and I believe they are at that point, where we're starting to understand and appreciate the spacing, the depth, how you execute things to make us a good passing team. And then you got to have the trigger man. I'm excited about Brady Quinn."
Willingham also singled out his offensive line and the overall experience his team gained in a difficult 2003 season as more reasons to be excited.
"Number one, some of the key areas we have experience, we have more experience than we had last year when we stepped on the field. The fact that you lost four offensive linemen. All four of those guys are in the NFL, that's a very difficult group to replace, whether they start in the NFL or not. That's a very difficult group to replace. Not only are you replacing ability, but you're also replacing experience."
How much improvement the Irish make in 2004 will likely depend on a maturing Bray Quinn. Willingham had nothing but positive comments about his quarterback.
"I thought Brady had a good year last year," Willingham said. "I thought it was a year he showed a lot of physical toughness, a lot of mental toughness. It was a year in which he learned a great deal.
"What we're hoping for him, what our expectation is, is that he can really take advantage of all the things he encountered last year and make him a better player this year. A football team, as you know, modern football is all about the quarterback. But it's also not about the quarterback, because if no one else does what they're supposed to do, the quarterback can't have any success anyway. "
The Irish are also hoping to have a few injuries in the rear-view mirror as they head into the season. Starting defensive ends Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak are both recovering from knee surgeries. Willingham is hopeful they will be 100 percent when the Irish kick off on September 4th.
"He is ready to go, but we will be cautious and conscious of his injury and make the right steps there. It's just the right thing to do," said Willingham of Tuck's status heading into fall camp.
"You will see maybe a guy not get as many repetitions early in our pre-season camp as he might have if he were completely healthy," Willingham said on how they will handle the injuries." It may even mean a situation where he doesn't practice particular days. Those are just smart things you do in your system to give your players the best opportunity."
What the Irish will try to avoid in 2004 will be a performance like their last—a dreadful 38-12 defeat at the hands of Syracuse. Willingham says his team has not forgotten about that performance, and they are using it as motivation for the 2004 season.
"With the leadership that we have, they felt like they let themselves down and they let the Notre Dame family down," Willingham said of his team. "And they are very eager to make amends for that.
"That's why I think we've been really pleased with their work this winter in the conditioning program and what we came out of spring practice with. Now we get to see how all that has come together to take us into the fall."