Take away Ron Powlus's halo and hype, and what's left? Ron Powlus, that's what, but that should be plenty. Powlus was practically beatified before he ever took a snap at Notre Dame. Then he got beaten up, stripped of his sainthood and reduced to human status.
Visions of multiple Heisman Trophies and national-championship rings no longer dance before his eyes. A junior, Powlus is a much toughened player and, mercifully, one less burdened by unrealistic expectations. Powlus and his supporting cast have learned that nothing comes automatically. In fact, the rude awakening they received last fall in the form of a 6-5-1 season, Notre Dame's worst since 1986, may make them better in the end.
Powlus didn't figure on losing five games in his career in South Bend. The expectations that accompanied him out of Berwick, Pa.—ESPN analyst Beano Cook predicted that he would win the Heisman twice—diminished after he and the Irish encountered one problem after another last year. Injuries left Powlus without a veteran to turn to in the backfield and with a porous, ever-changing offensive line. He was sacked 25 times.
The experience helped Powlus become a more mature and more consistent player. He logged 277 minutes on the field in '94, more than any other member of the offense. That answered questions about his durability that had lingered since his freshman year, when he sat out seven weeks with a broken right collarbone. He also became the team's de facto leader and threw for a school-record 19 touchdowns. "I want to be more of a leader," Powlus says. "I can help put everyone on the same track."
This season Powlus will have a more settled team. The Irish have found an offensive line they can count on—every player who finished '94 as a starter returns, including fifth-year senior guard Ryan Leahy. In the backfield Randy Kinder and Robert Farmer are solid at tailback. At wideout Powlus has an elegant target in senior Derrick Mayes, a possible No. 1 draft choice next year. "We all know where we fit in now," Powlus says. "Last year we all were trying to prove ourselves. We got away from helping each other. We forgot to play the team game."
The Irish shuttled defensive players in and out of the lineup last fall, and the lack of cohesion resulted in the opposition's averaging 4.7 yards per play. This season defensive coordinator Bob Davie will use fewer players. Says Davie, "Instead of thinking, We need this guy to be a player and that guy to be a player, we're now saying, 'Hey, we're going to make the circle smaller and allow fewer guys in.' "
It would not be surprising if the Irish rebounded with a strong season; the schedule is certainly in their favor. All three military academies are sure Ws, and the tough games are winnable. The critical point of the season will come in the fifth and sixth weeks, when Notre Dame travels to Washington and Ohio State.
Big games are no longer a worry for Powlus. "We've had the big games and the tough losses," he says. "We need to put it all together now."