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Irish Sweepstakes : Focus Is on Freshman Rob Powlus as Notre Dame Searches for a Quarterback

August 27, 1993|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz doesn't waste his Shecky Greene A-material on just anyone, which is why you can bet that before season's end, freshman Ron Powlus will be the starting quarterback for the Irish.

Just the other night on "Larry King Live," Holtz was asked, point-blank, who would be running his offense. Holtz stared into the eye of the camera and delivered the company line.

Senior Kevin McDougal is his starter . . . junior Paul Failla has had a boffo fall camp and is right there . . . Powlus has shown a lot of poise . . . freshman Tom Krug is competing, too.

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times from Holtz.

But then Holtz was drawn back to Powlus, the too-good-to-be-true freshman from little Berwick, Pa. Powlus, 19, hasn't been at Notre Dame very long--a few months for summer school, back again Aug. 9 for the beginning of fall practice--but he has made an impression.

"He's so mature that he must have gone to high school on the G.I. Bill," Holtz told King, who cackled appropriately.

Holtz likes maturity. He likes quarterbacks who don't make mistakes. His offense is like Rush Limbaugh, conservative and big. In fact, McDougal remembers the time Holtz got upset that a pass play worked too well during a practice session.

"Bring it back," Holtz ordered. "We don't need the big play."

The Irish, however, do need a quarterback. Rick Mirer, their starter of three years, is gone, as is the rest of the Notre Dame backfield of a season ago. Holtz has to have someone back there for the opener against Northwestern on Sept. 4.

At last Saturday's scrimmage, Powlus played well enough to raise eyebrows, to say nothing of conjecture regarding the quarterback race. Holtz wouldn't allow the Notre Dame sports information staff to keep statistics on Powlus that day, but it was evident who had the best day. Another scrimmage is scheduled for Saturday.

But until then. . . .

"Right now, starting out, it's Kevin McDougal," Holtz said.

A ringing endorsement for job security, it isn't. But after spending the last three seasons as Mirer's caddie, McDougal will take what he can get.

"You do get a little more excited," McDougal said. "Now you know you're No. 1. You know you have to come through."

Mirer and McDougal talk all the time. Usually the conversation has nothing to do with football, but on occasion they can't help themselves. Through it all, Mirer has offered only one piece of advice: "When you make a mistake, don't worry about it."

Easy for Mirer to say. He's in Seattle with the Seahawks. McDougal is still in South Bend, where they call 911 if the Irish don't win a national championship.

"That's the whole thing about it," McDougal said. "Expectations are so high. Coach Holtz has this saying: 'I want you to be perfect. If you can't come to that spot, I want you to come so close that I can't tell the difference.' "

McDougal is doing what he can, but he might turn out to be the right quarterback at the wrong time. That's because Failla--"No. 1A," as Holtz calls him--is impatiently waiting for his chance to stick McDougal back on the bench and keep Powlus, the nation's top recruit, there, too.

It's nothing personal. Failla gets along with McDougal. He gets along with everyone, including Powlus.

"When I met the kid, I liked him," Failla said.

Failla has spent the last two years biting his tongue. He was on his way to Stanford or Arizona State to play baseball when he suddenly found himself recruited by Notre Dame. Assured by Holtz that he could play both sports, Failla decided on the Irish.

For whatever reason--and Failla doesn't necessarily blame Holtz--the deal hasn't been everything it was cracked up to be. By playing baseball, Failla wasn't able to devote all his athletic energy to football. It showed on the depth chart.

"It's definitely played a part," Failla said. "I don't think this situation would be what it is if I had just been a football player."

Translation: Perhaps Failla was penalized for trying to do two things.

"It's been disappointing," he said. "It's something else I have to overcome. It's not a negative thing. I can see (Holtz's) perspective."

He can also see himself nipping at McDougal's heels.

"I'm approaching (the season) like I'm expecting to be the No. 1 guy," Failla said.

So is Powlus.

Actually, he didn't put it in those exact words. In fact, he didn't put it into any words until receiving assurances that a brief interview would be limited to questions about life at Notre Dame, not the quarterback race. That's because Holtz has issued a gag order on the freshman until he appears in an actual game.

"As far as me coming in (and playing), the media jumped into that," Powlus said. "Kind of crazy."

Kind of typical for Notre Dame, where interest in Powlus is so high that reporters asked Holtz about the freshman's chances after the annual Blue-Gold spring game. They asked even though Powlus had bought a ticket and sat in the bleachers at Notre Dame Stadium.

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