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Greg Pauly: Hobbled and humbled

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 12, 2004

Injuries are an athlete’s worst nightmare, but they’re even worse when they happen in games that don’t matter.

Don’t tell it to Greg Pauly. He knows.

Pauly tore his ACL in a 2000 summer all-star football game. And until his junior season at Notre Dame rolled around, the interior lineman’s knee did not fully heal.

“I think my junior year I started feeling a lot better, getting more comfortable,” Pauly said. “[It was difficult] especially because I added weight on, too. With Kyle [Budinscak] and Justin [Tuck], I’m surprised how fast they’ve come back from their surgeries. I wasn’t even close to where they were.”

Pauly’s knee surgery prior to his freshman year forced him to sit out an entire season as he watched the Irish go 9-3 in his absence.

But the wait was well worth it.

As a fifth-year senior on the 2004 squad, Pauly (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) has 31 tackles and 4.5 for a loss as one of two starting defensive tackles. He has started all nine games so far this season, the most since he started three in his sophomore year.

The sudden and drastic increase in playing time has placed Pauly in the spotlight.

“It’s a little harder on the body I guess,” Pauly said. “I’ve taken a lot more reps in practice, taken a lot more reps in the games. But I think it puts me in more of a role out there to step up and make plays.”

One-fourth of a whole

Pauly composes one-fourth of a defensive line that has made plays to limit Irish opponents to 95.2 yards rushing per game. In a season marked by inconsistency, Notre Dame’s run defense has been consistent and impenetrable.

“I think we’re playing pretty tough against the run,” Pauly said before the Stanford game. “Hopefully, by the end of the season we’ll establish a name for ourselves that way.”

By now, the words ‘Notre Dame defense’ scream run-stopping. And that is largely due to the push from the interior defensive line, something Pauly says is important in pass defense, as well.

“It’s tough. It’s two-on-three usually because you’ve got the center and two guards blocking me and Derek [Landri] or me and Trevor [Laws],” Pauly said. “And it’s tough because usually you’re getting double teamed or someone’s slamming back down on you, but I think we’re getting a good push.”

Willingham often rotates junior tackle Derek Landri and sophomore tackle Trevor Laws in their hole on the line, but Pauly remains on the field often due to his size, his strength and also because of the leadership that comes with being an experienced fifth-year player.

“I think it puts you in more of a leadership role,” Pauly said. “I’m an older guy. People are going to look up a little bit. It kind of puts me in more of a role in the eye of the team to do things well and step up.”

But playing time was not always so easy for Pauly to find. Though the Wisconsin native was a Parade All-American and first-team USA Today All-American, Pauly came to Notre Dame and knew he was starting over – injury and all.

“Coming in freshman year, I was pretty highly recruited and everyone has a big head and that happens,” Pauly said. “Coming in I had big expectations. I wanted to play right away. After I got hurt, I was here watching practice and seeing how it happens and how different it is.”

Pauly’s hype going into high school was just as high, and he matched it. In his first year at South High School in Waukesha, Wisc., Pauly became the first freshman starter at the high school since John Anderson, who went on to play for Michigan and the Green Bay Packers.

He dominated the league. Particularly in his senior season, Pauly set record numbers with 40 solo tackles, 65 assisted tackles, 17 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

Pauly accumulated countless accolades. He was one of 34 players on the Reebok ESPN All-America team. He was voted No. 17 on the Chicago Sun-Times top 100 list.

And the list goes on.

Pauly was rated No. 12 on the “Best of the Midwest” team by the Associated Press. The AP and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel also made him a two-time first-team all-state selection.

And then Pauly was named an all-star, one of the few ‘bad’ awards he received as he looks back.

“You kind of reevaluate your expectations [with an injury] seeing the college game,” he said. “But I think it’s gone pretty well for myself and I hope it ends just as well.”

Considering the knee injury, Pauly has rebounded to have a solid career at Notre Dame, even if it did not live up to expectations. The line Pauly helps command has not stopped the run, but it has done its part often this season in disrupting it.

Teams average a healthy 253 yards passing on Notre Dame. But the shaky secondary play has overshadowed the line’s dominance in a few important games. Tennessee amassed 269 yards in the air last Saturday, but the defensive line made 14 tackles and four for a loss.

“The play of all of the defensive line … is based on the productivity of the group,” Willingham said. “What we try to do is rotate those guys in such a manner that you’ve created one with the many and to keep them fresh, keep them active and keep our defense being productive.”

Jumping back into the fray

Pauly once was near the end of that rotation. As a junior in 2002, he gave breathers to starter Cedric Hilliard and amounted over 98 minutes of playing time, making 11 tackles. By his senior season, Pauly played in 11 games and started two of them while mostly substituting for Hilliard and Darrell Campbell on the line.

But now, Pauly is one of the penciled-in starters, and he is among the senior leaders who care deeply about the team finishes its season. That finish begins with Pauly’s final game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.

“Especially the seniors, we want to go out winners,” he said. “We don’t want to end the season on a bad note.”

Ending the season on a good note would qualify as beating both Pittsburgh and Southern California and winning a respectable bowl game. Pauly will focus on helping Notre Dame to the best of his ability. But when the season ends, there may be greater things waiting for him.

“Every player wants to go on to the next level,” the tackle said. “I hope we finish up the season well and that I have no regrets.”

Pauy does not regret the knee injury. He simply dealt with it. And the fifth-year senior would be devastated if he did not contribute to a strong finish to the 2004 season.

But knowing how Pauly has dealt with adversity in the past, he will certainly try.