Believe the Hype : Notre Dame's Ron Powlus Has Lived Up to Advance Billing During His Freshman Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vision is a hard-to-define trait that separates great quarterbacks from good ones.

It's the ability to see an entire field, to see things that haven't happened yet . . . but are about to.

Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coach, believes that his redshirt freshman quarterback, Ron Powlus, has it.

And so does everyone else in the Notre Dame community.

Called by some the most heralded Notre Dame recruit since Paul Hornung in 1954, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Powlus will be in charge of the Irish offense when Notre Dame guns for a 12th consecutive victory over USC at the Coliseum on Saturday.

At his weekly news conference Tuesday, Holtz talked at length about Powlus' vision, about a play Powlus made in Notre Dame's 30-11 loss to Boston College.

"I called a slant pass to Derrick Mayes when we were on their 12-yard line, and Ron winds up throwing a high, soft lob," Holtz said.

"I'm saying: 'Oh, no--what's he doing out there?'

"Well, what I didn't see--and he did--was that the safety had come over to Mayes with the backside corner. We didn't complete the pass, but there was no danger of a pick and he knew that.

"He comes off and I said, 'Son, what in the world are you doing out there? We're on the 12, throwing a lob like that--that's like trying to take three points off the board.'

"He looks at me and says, 'No, coach--the safety came up and ran under the slant, with the cornerback.'

"We look at the films and that's exactly what happened. None of us on the sideline saw it.

"That's what I mean about this kid. He does amazing things. He's a very accurate passer, but it's his decision-making process that I respect the most in him."

Powlus arrived two summers ago from Berwick, Pa., with so much hype and high expectations that he was almost anointed St. Ronald before he threw his first pass.

ESPN's Beano Cook, the self-appointed college football expert, has said Powlus could start for some NFL teams now.

Notre Dame didn't do much to lower the steam in Powlus' pressure cooker, either. He was issued jersey No. 3, previously worn by Rick Mirer and Joe Montana.

If you order a Notre Dame football jersey with No. 3 on it from the university's memorabilia catalogue, the tab is $650.

Powlus brought all this on himself, of course.

He passed for 51 touchdowns during his senior year in high school and ran up more than 9,000 yards in total offense as a high school player. He was USA Today's prep offensive player of the year for 1992.

He was America's hottest high school quarterback, everyone agreed.

Powlus was supposed to have his rookie season with last season's 11-1 team rather than this season's 6-4 team.

Holtz was on the verge of naming Powlus his starter last season when two 280-pound players now in the NFL--Jim Flanagan and Bryant Young--squashed him in a preseason pileup, and Powlus suffered a broken collarbone.

That Powlus was close to a starter's role a year ago astonished everyone in South Bend.

But there was Powlus, a freshman coolly striding into Notre Dame's preseason camp and taking over the offense.

Holtz, at the time, said privately he never had seen a young quarterback show such command of an offense so quickly, or to be able to read defenses as adeptly.

In the first 1993 training camp scrimmage, Powlus completed 23 of 36 passes for 436 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions.

Then Flanagan and Young put him in the hospital.

Powlus tried to come back too early from the injury and broke the collarbone again.

Last summer, Holtz made Powlus wear a yellow do-not-touch-the-quarterback vest.

Holtz, trying to pull back on the hype throttle, had to find something to complain about.

He settled on the fact that Powlus had gained 10 pounds during rehab, and nicknamed him "Chunky Chucker."

Powlus' teammates call him "Happy Feet," a knock on his speed.

Said Holtz, in 1993: "We have not had a quarterback who has not been 4.75 seconds or better in the 40 since I've been here. Right now, Powlus is around five seconds flat."

Mock cheers from teammates went up last August when Powlus allegedly clocked a 4.8 40.

His first season is a smash.

He is already tied with Rick Mirer for the Notre Dame one-season touchdown pass record at 18 and he's running a Notre Dame team that has passed for 20 touchdowns, more than any previous Irish team.

And in a season when injuries have forced Holtz to start 10 different offensive lines, his rookie quarterback has passed the toughness test, too.

"Ron has had a great season without the benefit of an awful lot of protection, and he's taken a physical pounding," Holtz said.

"So he's shown us courage in addition to everything else.

"His passing percentage (53%) is not real impressive, but people forget he's throwing away five or six passes a game to avoid sacks."

Said Mayes, his primary receiver: "He came in here with a lot of hype, so we felt like he had to really show us something. And he did. It didn't take him long at all. On the first day, he walked into the huddle and just took control."

Powlus' high school coach, George Curry, said Powlus was a finished product leaving high school.

"He was like a second coach on the field," Curry told the Chicago Tribune.

"We had a sophisticated offense, with 25 to 30 formations a game. Ron knew every bit of it, including what every player's assignment was."

Of his quick mastery of Holtz's offense, Powlus said: "I was already in coach Holtz's offense last year before I got hurt. . . . I see what he wants me to do."

Of the pressure of playing one of the most visible positions in American sports: "There was a lot of hype, but I knew it was coming. I was prepared for it. It goes with playing quarterback here.

"All in all, I'd say I've had a decent year. I've made plenty of rookie mistakes, like trying to make some plays that weren't there. But I've done some good things, too."

Of USC Saturday, Powlus says: "We'll have to score a lot of points to beat SC, no question about it.

"SC's defense jumps around a lot, kind of like Michigan State's. I learned some things against Michigan State that I'll apply to SC."

So, why Notre Dame?

"I felt Notre Dame is a special place, and I felt really comfortable here. I liked everything about it, including the fact it's only an hour-and-40-minute-drive from home."

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