Passing Into The Spotlight

September 10, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He is a college football legend-in-making, from the uniform he puts on to the statistics he put up in his first game to the reams of material being put out about him across the country.

It seems that the only one not making a big deal about Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus is Ron Powlus.

"There's nothing I can do about all the attention and all the hype," Powlus said earlier this week. "The only thing I can do is go out and play."

It has been that way for much of the past four years, three record-breaking seasons at Berwick (Pa.) High School followed by last season at Notre Dame, during which Powlus was `D sidelined with a twice-separated shoulder.

If anything, his debut in last week's 42-15 win over Northwestern only served to intensify the spotlight. After spending the preseason fending off reports of tendinitis in his right arm, Powlus completed 18 of 24 passes for 291 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns.

So the focus today will be squarely on the latest, and potentially greatest, Fighting Irish quarterback to wear No. 3 -- following in the footsteps of Joe Montana and Rick Mirer -- when third-ranked Notre Dame (1-0) plays host to No. 6 Michigan (1-0).

"In high school, I happened to play for a team that was in a pretty much pressure-packed situation," Powlus said. "But you can't really be too prepared for this. It's a little overwhelming."

This was all supposed to happen last season. After an impressive performance during two-a-days and the first couple of intrasquad scrimmages, Powlus had beaten out senior Kevin McDougal as Mirer's successor. But Powlus injured his shoulder in the final scrimmage and reinjured it later in the season as he attempted to come back.

Though McDougal led the Irish to an 11-1 season, he is all but forgotten in this blur of Powlus-mania. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, not chancing another preseason mishap, put a yellow jersey on the 6-foot-4, 218-pound sophomore during spring drills. It meant that Powlus was off-limits to any defensive player trying to make a hit.

Some have even accused Holtz of giving Powlus preferential treatment, including not berating his quarterback during practice he has done to McDougal and others in the past. Holtz, infamous for poor-mouthing his players while being highly complimentary of the opposition, has gone as far as to call Powlus a "special person."

Powlus said: "I think that he's dealing with me in a way that I can respond to. It shows what kind of coach he is. It's not me vs. them [the rest of the players]. It's the way I respond best."

Realizing that he might have contributed to the hype, Holtz said this week, "We didn't go to Krypton to recruit Ron Powlus. He's a freshman. He's going to make mistakes. I'm not trying to prepare him for a fall. I just don't want to get where it's impossible for him to live up to the expectations that everybody has. Let's watch him three or four years and then pass judgment."

But even Holtz has trouble avoiding comparisons.

"He's still not throwing the ball like I know he can," Holtz said. "But I tell you this -- he finds a way to get the ball to the receivers. He doesn't look great in practice, but they tell me Joe Montana was that way. I don't know."

That Powlus picked to wear No. 3 tells you something about his confidence level. After wearing No. 7 in high school, Powlus didn't blink when he was handed that fabled jersey number. He was well aware of who had worn it before.

"It's really neat to wear a jersey that is so meaningful," said Powlus, whose arm has been compared to Mirer's and whose poise to Montana's. "It's not something I want to think about too much. I'm just going to go out and hopefully my contributions to the uniform will be good enough."

Said Michigan coach Gary Moeller, whose Wolverines were riddled for 338 yards and three touchdown last week by first-time starter Mark Hartsell of Boston College: "I see a very calm, collected quarterback, much more seasoned than you'd expect this early in his career."

What Powlus is going through now is almost a repeat of what happened in Berwick, except on a larger stage. This is a player who broke in as a sophomore by completing 17 of 23 passes against a rival team from Ohio before 40,000 hostile fans at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium for the first of his 37 wins as a starter.

George Curry, who coached Powlus in high school, said this week by telephone from Berwick: "He has the ability to block everything out and stay focused on the task at hand. He batted .700 in baseball one year. He led the varsity in rebounding as a ninth-grader. The pressure was on him here, and he did everything that people said he would."

The legend of Ron Powlus already has started to grow at Notre Dame as well.

/# Today, it could grow some more.

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