Hands Off, O.K.?

Notre Dame has Ron Powlus in a quarterback-protection program
May 01, 1994

The quarterback of the future-feel free to knock on wood—watched from the sideline as two teams of Fighting Irish scrimmaged in the hollow of Notre Dame Stadium, assorted grunts and whistles echoing off vacant seats. Freshman Ron Powlus wore a bright-yellow jersey, which through most of spring practice has amounted to a hands-off sign during scrimmages but on this day meant spectator. Powlus could not have been more conspicuous, the jersey making him look like a yellow tennis ball among blue and white marbles, and his inactivity lengthening the Powlus watch in South Bend by another day—now eight months and counting.

In front of Powlus another freshman, Tom Krug, ran plays for 90 minutes and took a ceaseless beating from Notre Dame's first-and second-team defenses. Aaron Taylor, an offensive tackle for last fall's 11-1, No. 2-ranked Irish (whom the Green Bay Packers made the 16th pick in last Sunday's NFL draft), watched the scrimmage at field level. "You saw what happened," Taylor said, grimacing. "One quarterback—and he got pounded."

More than a year has passed since Powlus chose Notre Dame, uniting the country's hottest recruit of 1993 with the only college football program that, as Florida State's Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward has noted, "has its own channel." A quarterback, no less, a wholesome, dutiful athlete dressed in the same number 3 worn by Joe Montana and Rick Mirer, he is expected to be this year's starter and thus is entrusted with the Notre Dame legacy. Yet to this day he still awaits his first meaningful snap.

Late last August, Powlus was on the cusp of beating out senior Kevin McDougal and junior Paul Failla for the starting job—so, at least, said Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz—before he broke his right collarbone in a scrimmage. Forty-eight days later a recovering Powlus was throwing lightly when the same bone fractured in the same spot. So he takes no contact this spring. "Why take a chance now?" says Willard Yergler, Notre Dame's team doctor. "I think he's solid enough, but by the fall, it'll be 99 percent healed."

Powlus is no ordinary freshman, and his is no run-of-the-mill spring football saga. He is heir to the gilded position of Notre Dame quarterback, which since Gus Dorais first hooked up with Knute Rockne in 1913 has been occupied by 13 All-Americas, seven first-round draft picks and four Heisman winners and has inspired a cascade of books, poems, videos, myths and legends. Adding to the challenge, Powlus is expected to take over a team that lost 13 starters and limped through spring practice with six injured offensive linemen. On top of that, the Irish could be without explosive wideout-kick returner Michael Miller and defensive back Tracy Graham, who were investigated by campus police in connection with the theft of a TV and VCR from a dormitory in April. Although the St. Joseph County (Ind.) prosecutor said last week that no charges would be filed against the players, Notre Dame's student affairs office is still reviewing their status.

The manpower shortage is most critical at quarterback, where only Krug has been healthy for the entire spring. Failla skipped spring practice to concentrate on baseball and might not return to football in the fall. Only because sophomore Wade Smith had recovered sufficiently from a thumb injury did Holtz rescind a threat to cancel last Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game. Come fall, Powlus will be the guy, and Holtz is easing his passage into the national glare by discussing him only with selected reporters and encouraging him and his teammates to act with similar discretion. The situation is rife with high intrigue and high anxiety. Just how ready is Powlus to take over the Irish?

The Blue-Gold game gave a clue. In his yellow jersey Powlus saw limited action, but he did throw a 26-yard touchdown pass on his first play from scrimmage. He threw for only 37 yards, completing three of 10 passes—faltering with back-to-back interceptions that led to touchdowns for the Blue squad. But Holtz was impressed enough to say, "There's no doubt that Ron Powlus is going to be Number 1 in the fall." He most likely will also be punting, something he did in high school and in the Blue-Gold game.

So far the 19-year-old Powlus has been more a boon to orthopedists than he is to the Irish. As if his damaged collarbone weren't enough, he was slowed at the start of spring drills by a sprained ankle (he rolled it over stepping off a curb) and sat out at least two days with minor injuries to his right elbow and right index finger. Despite the considerable catalog of ailments, this is a durable kid, a 6'4", 218-pound quarterback-in-a-linebacker's-body who played 42 consecutive high school games without a whimper. Injuries? "A broken bone in his hand, maybe, around seventh grade," says his father, Ron Sr.

So Powlus gets to Notre Dame, opportunity spread before him like a great buffet, and he turns into Rickey Henderson. "This is tough for him, not being able to take a shot," says Jason Soboleski, a teammate at Berwick (Pa.) High School and now a redshirt freshman at Pitt. "He wants to be in there going live."

The Powlus situation lies close to the heart of Holtz, to whom a quarterback is a necessary evil, the one player who, through some foolish interception or misread, gets a chance to foul up the game plan on every down. Holtz does not so much groom quarterbacks as suffer them. So when Powlus displayed poor judgment in play selection in a scrimmage on April 19, Holtz jumped in his face. "The players really rallied around him big-time," Holtz said. "If you have a common enemy, it sort of pulls you together. I'm sort of the common enemy out there."

But there is no question he has taken an uncommon liking to Powlus. According to Irish insiders, it was the coach's desire that Powlus sit out spring practice entirely, but Powlus balked at more idle time. Plan B was that Powlus would run only skeleton drills, but he wasn't pleased by the prospect of not being involved in scrimmages. Hence the yellow jersey, which means that Powlus plays but he doesn't get tackled.

This is a remarkable concession for Holtz, whose players—quarterbacks included—are expected to hit and get hit. Notre Dame practices are more violent than your average Rutgers-Temple game. "The yellow jersey didn't exist when I was playing," Taylor says. "There were a few times I wish I could have put one on."

Preferential treatment for Powlus began last August, when Holtz worked him into a three-quarterback rotation with the first-team offense. But while Failla and McDougal were taking their first-team snaps against the starting defense—"And god, they were on target from the first day, just killing us," says McDougal—Powlus was also playing for the first team but taking his snaps largely against second-stringers. "I threw screens that wouldn't go anywhere," says McDougal, who's planning to graduate in June with a degree in business management. "Ron threw a couple that went for long gains, but they were in much easier situations, like against the scout team."

Statistics leaked out. Powlus: 24 for 37, 475 yards, five touchdowns. Unofficial, but daunting. Dan Fouts numbers. On Aug. 27, at a team meeting, Holtz said that if Powlus performed well in the next day's intrasquad scrimmage, he would be the starter in the season opener against Northwestern. The team was stunned.

"I thought Kevin was still ahead, and competing with Paul," Taylor says. Recalls Failla, "Ron was throwing a lot more than we were, doing pretty good, but you don't think anything of it. All of a sudden the newspapers were quoting his stats, and Holtz was saying how great he is. Everyone on the team was looking at each other and saying, 'Stats?' No one had even thought about him being the starter. It got out of hand."

Once during a practice Holtz approached Failla and motioned toward Powlus. "He's a freak," Holtz said. "He does things Rick Mirer didn't do last year."

Where Holtz is concerned, it's useful to look for hidden motives. He might have been trying to embarrass Failla and McDougal into improving. They both suspect as much, and maybe it worked. McDougal ended up completing 61.6% of his passes last season and was the biggest surprise on a team full of surprises.

The issue of whether Powlus would start became moot six plays into that Aug. 28 scrimmage. Playing against the first-line defense for a change, he was hit from the left side by 276-pound Jim Flanigan and 277-pound Bryant Young, and landed awkwardly on his right shoulder while cradling the ball. "I don't think there are many clavicles that could have withstood that hit," Yergler says. Seven weeks later Powlus was throwing easily when he felt the clavicle snap again. "I threw it, and I felt my shoulder go with the ball," Powlus said. "It was pretty violent."

Yergler dismisses any suggestion of chronic fragility. He simply believes the break never healed. "I don't think it was a refracture," he said. Anyway, the result was clear: end of season.

This is hardly what was expected of Powlus, who started at quarterback for three years at Berwick High, completing 445 of 791 passes for a state-record 7,339 yards and 62 touchdowns and running for 45 more TDs. Berwick went 15-0 to win the state title in 1992, his senior year.

Miami assistant coach Art Kehoe, who recruited Powlus, recalls watching film of him one day after the '92 season when that year's Heisman winner, Gino Torretta, walked into his office. "He looked at the film and just said, 'That's a high school kid?' " Kehoe calls Powlus "the best I ever saw in my life, bar none. Classy kid, classy family."

The class part is a common theme with Powlus's admirers. He was beloved in Berwick, while participating in blood drives and grammar-school reading programs and bringing down good grades. "You could say he was the town heartthrob," said Dan Pecorelli, a senior at Berwick who succeeded Powlus at quarterback. "Everybody looked up to him, the ail-American kid."

Powlus is clean enough to squeak, being a fresh-scrubbed small-town jock sliced from a teen novel. His father is a teacher and basketball coach in Shickshinny, Pa., 16 miles up the Susquehanna River from Berwick. Until recently his mother, Susan, was the receptionist at Berwick High, which means that recruiters pursuing Powlus had to clear Mom's security first.

Even the Irish players who were stunned at Powlus's rise to Holtz's penthouse respect him. "I have nothing bad to say about the kid," Failla says. "He's a quiet person, a good kid. And he showed a lot of maturity as a freshman."

Still, frustration continues to nag at Powlus. Last November, in a letter to Pecorelli, who had also broken his right collarbone, Powlus wrote, "When somebody asks you what's wrong, just say, 'I broke my collarbone, what do you think is wrong?' " And after a contact-free scrimmage this spring, Powlus complained to beat reporters, "It's just a hassle going through practice wearing a yellow jersey."

Just wait until August, the doctors say. Others say the same thing. "Ron is going to have a great career here," McDougal says. And Ron Powlus Sr. strikes an upbeat note when he says, "All the bad things that have happened, I'm sure it's helped to build his character."

Fair enough, but right about now a trade might be in order: a little bit of that maturity and character for a negative X-ray and a fresh start.

TWO PHOTOSED BALLOTTS/SOUTH BEND TRIBUNEA solicitous Holtz (left) declared the yellow-jerseyed Powlus off-limits to tacklers. PHOTODAVID WALBERGPowlus can fling without last fall's sling, but not—even if his parents are around—to his heart's content. PHOTODAVID DUROCHIK[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSED BALLOTTS/SOUTH BEND TRIBUNEIn the Blue-Gold game, Powlus was quick to oblige with both punt and pen.