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ND FOOTBALL: Now and then

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, September 21, 2005

One week after Irish coach Charlie Weis prepared his team for the distractions of its first home game, the focus has turned to the distraction of playing its former head coach.

Saturday’s matchup with Washington marks the first matchup between Huskies head coach Tyrone Willingham, fired by Notre Dame in November, and the Irish.

“I think the emotions for those games are extremely high and will be extremely high for this one,” Willingham said at his weekly press conference Monday. “The fact that you have players that I recruited, that I spent time in their homes, that does make it just a little bit different the relationship, but no. When you get to the game, it’s a football game.”

Weis is focused on Notre Dame versus Washington (1-2) and nothing else. He wants his players to adapt that attitude, as well.

“Our coaching staff and our team has the utmost respect for Coach Willingham, his staff, and in addition, his team and their university,” Weis said. “What this week is really going to be about is us getting back to us fixing our own problems fundamentally and technically, and that’s going to be our points of emphasis.”

But Willingham will not be the only familiar face on the Washington sidelines Saturday. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer, special teams coach Bob Simmons, offensive line coach Mike Denbrock, running backs coach Trent Miles and secondary coach Steven Wilks were all on Willingham’s staff at Notre Dame, as well. Also on the Washington staff is former Irish punter and 2003 graduate Joey Hilbold, who is a defensive graduate assistant with the Huskies.

“It definitely is strange to play against a couple coaches who recruited me, so it should be interesting,” sophomore running back Darius Walker said. “The main thing I’m focused on is Washington, which is the most important game that we have. And the main thing for us this week is we need to work on what we need to do to get better and try to improve our overall game.”

One thing the Irish do have is the playbooks from last year’s defense, run by Baer. Weis said he has used that to his advantage in preparing for Washington this week.

“It helps when you have the playbook,” Weis said. “You know, the playbook that Kent [Baer] has, we have, so when they walk out the door, they can take everything else with them. When you have a copy of it, you have a copy of it. Kind of helps a little bit when you know the foundation of the playbook.”

Meanwhile, senior wide receiver Maurice Stovall said he remembers his old coach fondly.

“He’s a great person, a great guy, a great leader also,” said Stovall, who played for Willingham for three years. “Meeting with him in his office, he’s helped me with things. We missed him early in the year when we were having those problems and issues with the coaching change, but we’re past that now and focused on our season.”

Walker spoke of how Willingham taught him things not only on the field but also off the field.

“Coach Willingham was a very personable coach,” Walker said. “He was real personable with his players, which is what I liked about him. He taught you things off the field. I learned how to grow up and be a man. He was a very intellectual man. He always had wisdom every day.”

But each player, although having thoughts on Willingham, maintains it is still an important football game to be played.

“I’m sure there will be some feelings – I mean, he was my head coach last year,” Stovall said. “But at the same time, I don’t see myself or any of the players or coaches thinking about this during the game.”

And fellow wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said he is ready for the football game.

“We have the utmost respect for Coach Willingham and the staff he has at Washington, but I think looking at what we did last game, we’re just concentrating on ourselves right now and what we can do to improve our team to get a win out in Washington,” he said.

“Right now I think the team’s real set on Notre Dame football versus Washington football.”

And Weis has no doubt his players will be focused on the task at hand and not the familiar faces dotting the opposite sideline.