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."