Charlie, was there anybody who today went "whew" for you?"Well, I'll give you a good one. I can't help myself. Somebody asked me the other day, when we were talking about the kicking situation, how you create pressure situations in practice. So today at the end of practice we were dialed up to run sprints. So I let four guys kick field goals. I let Gioia (Carl) kick first and Burkhart (Ryan) kick second and Renkes (Bobby) and we have a new guy named Nate Whitaker, a walk-on; I let him kick too. I let everyone kick and at the end I put the ball on the 24-yard line in the middle of the field and said, okay come back out here Gioia. We all know in the spring game that he struggled some, so the ball is on the 24-yard line so I say here is the deal, if you make this field goal we don't run; if you miss the field goal we are running 8-80's. So he goes to line of scrimmage now and having the pressure of your peers is similar to having the pressure of a game. So he gets ready to kick and I call time out, okay, to freeze my own kicker and the team is all mad at me. He went and drilled one right down the middle. You have to try and find those ways in practice to simulate a pressure type of situation and I think Gioia delivered for his teammates today."
Jim Sampson was kicker here and he received death threats. Do you talk to them about this kind of thing and how to handle them?"Last year we talked about how you have to practice end-of-game situations - and you have to practice them. I don't think you can just talk about them. I think you have to actually try and create as best you can without having 82,000 people in the stands. Sometimes you have to be a little innovative but let's face it, it is not the same because it is not like the whole free world is going to know whether you won or lost the game based on that kick. But that is one of the ways we have done it over the years and another which will come eventually is to have a little fun. I almost thought about doing it if this was a punt at the end of practice; because Sully's (John Sullivan) 21st birthday was today, I would have put him back as the punt returner. And I would have said, if you fair catch this, if you catch it, there is no running. That's more goofing around, but it is also bonding the team; like them against you. And sometimes you have to put yourself where it's them against you, and they feel they are winning. You are winning too but they just don't realize you are winning."
When Gioia has struggled like in the Blue/Gold game was it technique or mental preparation?"I think it is a combination of both of those. I think when you have a leg that is good enough to kick consistent from 50 yards and in; then the question is whether you can kick consistently or not. That's really what it comes down to. He has the leg strength to do that. I'm not saying to kick from 60 yards but to kick from 50 yards because I have seen him do that several times in practice. The issue is, can we get that confidence built between me and him or whoever. Right now, he is first on the confidence to fall in that situation rather than going for it, which I would tend to do it if I didn't have confidence in putting him out there and putting the game on his foot."
How do you balance that levity when you don't have a lot of time to get them ready?"I have a list of end-the-game situations and obviously we didn't handle them perfect every time because we had the end-of-game situation with Michigan State where we tied the game up and got the ball back and had a chance to score in regulation, not even including the overtime situation. There was the end-of-game situation against USC which we didn't handle that so well either. So I'm not sitting here saying I have the answers to the test, but I do know in the preparation the way I have learned to do it and the preparation over the years; I think the best way is to have the list of all the game situations and try to put in a different one each day as a point of emphasis and we can say we got that one covered and now we can move onto the next one. A two-point play might happen once the whole year but you might have three in one game, depending on the situation and the score and how things go. Taking a safety might happen once in an entire year but it might happen at a critical time. Here is a situation where you have the ball on your own 20-yard line and it is fourth down and you are up by six and it is the end of the game. You are going to punt and there are 10 seconds left so you tell the quarterback to take the ball turn around and throw the ball out of the end zone and everybody looks at you like what are you doing. What you are doing is you are still leading by four and either way they still need a touchdown to beat you. So what you are doing is basically giving your punter a free kick instead of having to worry about the punt being blocked. Those are the type of things we are talking about if you don't practice them your own team, forget about the fans, your own players are not going to know what you are practicing at the time."
One of the players said the other day that the first opponent for this team is training camp not Georgia Tech. Is that an approach and attitude that can be beneficial as well?"Yes because you are not practicing for the end of game situation for Georgia Tech, you are practicing now for the entire season. You are practicing each of these things because they might only come up once the entire year. It might be game nine but you are not going to practice it once you get on a weekly schedule and in a 20-hour work week there is not enough time to cover those things. So you have to lay the foundation for those situational things now in training camp."
Earlier you joked that Munir Prince was like a cult hero. When you give this praise to a player, is it to find out how the player will react?"What you have to make sure is that as soon as they start feeling good about themselves, you have to start tearing them down and then build them up and then you tear them down because what you want them to do is let your ribbing go in one ear and out the other. Because once you know you can't get to them anymore, that's when you know you've got something. Because you know when you can get to them and you know you can break them down, you know you have to work on his mental toughness. Our quarterback has been hardened. He has heard so many things that there isn't anything that is really going to affect him. I have used all my best stuff and really I have said so much to him that it is just a way of saying the same thing at this point. He has been hardened but not everyone is like that, so he is a young guy with a lot of ability and you are trying in his own right to have that mental toughness."
Do you ever talk to your players about what it was like when you were here for a National Championship season as a motivational tool?"I think I would be willing to talk about that when it was closer to that situation being a reality. I think if you go back to that year, losing to Old Miss, you know losing to Mississippi that year really should have been the difference between winning it all and not winning it all. If it wasn't for a great set of circumstances that took place right around bowl-time, the team would never have been in that situation to be able to win it all. I think when that situation presents itself, I'll pull on that experience, but remember now, I'm sitting in row 50, it's a little different when you are sitting up in the stands. You can pull on the experience as far as Notre Dame history, but I never proclaimed to be anybody other than the guy sitting in the stands."
But the players are going to be talking to the students who will want to talk about it constantly. How will they handle this?"That's one of the reasons when I got here that I went and talked to the students for the same thing you are saying, because I want and try and get them on the same page. People on campus really make them feel good about themselves when things are going good. You don't want them feeling bad about themselves, don't get me wrong. You want them to feel confident but you don't want to have one bump in the road. You don't want to have an Old Miss. You don't want to have that situation occur. You don't want to have one of those games where we will go down there and the next thing you lose and you're coming back with a chance of really hurting potential goals that you set for a year. Right now when we get through training camp, things will change but until you get to that point, and it isn't just Weis giving the party line, it's me trying to keep everyone level-headed to try and get to where we really want to be. And what we really want to be is to be playing really good football in the opener. Not a lot of teams play really good football in the opener. A lot of teams grow into good teams but I like to be ready to go in game one. I think that's important."
Any early returns on the mental aspect of the defense?"Let's talk about Travis as he is a work in progress as we know. But the one good thing when you are sitting out there watching him is even when he makes a mistake he has what I call recovery speed. You know when you see someone take a step and he is one step out of whack and they turn to run and don't have the wheels to go ahead and do it. Probably the best play that I have seen anyone make in recent years against an offense that I was calling was made by a safety named Troy Polamalu. He was actually across the line of scrimmage on the first play of the game in the AFC championship game and I ran a reverse on the first play of the game to try and take away their aggressiveness. The guy across the line of scrimmage and Dionne Branch has the ball and he turns and runs the guy down after a 17-yard gain. That's the best 17-yard defensive play you could ever see because the play is set up for a touchdown. You can't do that without recovery speed. The difference between him and someone else is a touchdown or a 17-yard gain. To be honest with you, I have not watched the tape today but by Sunday, I could start to settle in about where we are at that time."
What was the process to let Travis Leitko back in?"I was not the first part of this process. The University has to let you back. When the University said they would let him back, I said okay, you take care of your summer school stuff, because he had to take two classes, and get good grades, which he got two A's. I told him if he did that I would let him walk on and have the opportunity to earn a scholarship before school started."
What does he have to do exactly to earn that scholarship?"He's well on his way with what has happened so far. But the jury is still out because I'm not awarding him one after one or two practices. But he is moving a step closer every day."
Is Derrell Hand out for awhile?"He's had something in his foot for the last few days so we're going to have that checked on Thursday to see whether or not it's going to heal itself or whether we have to go in and do something to fix it. If it is, we will probably lose him for four weeks. But it is not a season-ending type of thing, but sometimes when you have something, you have to decide if you just want to play with it or go in and fix it."
You have a lot of options at the other end opposite Victor (Abiamiri), what do players have to do to separate themselves from the pack?"Well, there are two things; I think Ronald Talley played very consistent especially against the run last year. I think one thing we definitely have to do is have someone come off the edge on the right side; that can make things a little bit easier for Victor on the left side. It might be one person or it might be a host of people to be able to do different jobs, but the jury is still out on that one because it's way too early. We haven't even gotten to the true multiple wide receiver pass-rush mentality. The first two days have sort of been, just line up and smash mouth a little bit even though we don't have full pads so we can try and get everybody to get their feet wet."
Is the move of Mitchell Thomas to Sam an effort to get the best three on the field?"What happened is, when I told you I was moving Maurice (Crum) inside, I think you need somebody who can quarterback your defense. If in fact one of the guys behind Maurice shows that they can do that, it allows us to move him to that position. I think last year Cory Mays was somebody who could coordinate the defense at the middle linebacker position. Cory Mays was really a good solid player for us. With Maurice inside, we need somebody at the Sam position who is both athletic and physical. In both his case and Anthony's (Vernaglia) case, they are both athletic and physical and we will just have to see how it turns out. I'm not saying I would never put Maurice back at that spot but someone has to step to the forefront where I feel those questions I just talked about can be answered."
You hear a lot in the preseason that your defense and secondary was a weakness. As a coach, with all those guys back, do you look at that as a strength because of the experience they gained?"That answer is two-fold; one is personnel-related and one is schematic and they are two separate issues. I think we will be better both personnel-wise from the guys having more experience and having a better clue of what to do, plus the influx of the young guys coming in. We have tweaked our system so I think we are far ahead of where we are schematically. Sometimes you are searching for answers and we feel pretty good about what the potential answers are. And now we have to find out if we can validate that or not."
There was a time here where kickers were reluctantly given scholarships and there wasn't much coaching going on with the kickers. How important is it to have someone like Brian Polian coaching the kickers?"Brian does a really good job and goes the extra mile, research-wise, to get answers to both our schemes on special teams and help with the kickers. I have come from a string of head coaches who all have special teams backgrounds and so do I. One of the things I think that comes into play is allowing your special teams coach the time and access to be able to do that without tying him into – well, you just go over there and be Rick's caddy with the linebackers. We have to let him do his job and he does it pretty well."
Is it hard to preach the importance of special teams to your players?"There are a lot of programs where if you don't have the backing of the head coach, if he doesn't make it important, the players don't perceive it as important. The guy I feel that has done the best job in college football, year-in and year-out, over the last decade is Frank Beamer. Frank Beamer's special teams have always been great because of his emphasis. In Brian's case, he knows he has my backing. And when you have the head coach's backing, it's no different than the strength coach, no matter how good they are, is only good if the head coach finds that important. I like to think that I find that important."