Total turnaround for Powell

Take a young man like Ronald Powell with so many skill sets that he could be one of the nation's top recruits at a variety of positions, and you might think that because he's so gifted physically he's probably been touched his entire life with the whole package: compassion, perspective, intellect -- all of it.

There is mounting evidence that he is blessed all the way around. But the truth is there was a serious bubble in the line for ESPNU's No. 1-ranked overall player, the one everybody wants.

A few years ago, he was a guy almost nobody would touch.

"When you have everybody telling you how great you are … it's rough when you're 6-3, 240 pounds and mature physically, a starter as a ninth grader, and you're with a bunch of kids throwing spitballs and doing what freshman boys do," said Moreno Valley (Calif.) Rancho Verde coach Pete Duffy.

"I guess for lack of better words, he had behavior issues, problems in interpersonal relationships with other students and teachers."

Duffy's being too nice.

Powell was downright mean, a mess who didn't seem to love much of anything, and perhaps was on the verge of leaving his mountain of potential in a steaming pile.

There are two words for it: lost and angry.

"I was just careless, didn't care about what anybody said, or what they were going through, or what they felt," Powell said. "My parents started splitting up when I was in eighth grade, and my mom and dad took a toll on me. I was going back and forth between them, and there wasn't too much I cared about.

"I would talk back to teachers, cuss them out, I was fighting all the time. I didn't respect nobody, or nothing."

Powell's got a grip now.

Much like Matt Elam, the future Florida teammate he spent so much time with on a recruiting visit in Gainesville, Fla., a couple of weeks ago, Powell has transitioned from enraged, aimless youth to a focused person and football player -- in that order.

The football part of Powell has been in place for quite some time.

Suspicions of his massive talent were confirmed last month in the Army All-American game, when he was tabbed MVP after making five tackles, forcing a fumble, registering a safety, returning a blocked extra point for a score and catching a touchdown pass.

That bumped Powell to the top of the ESPNU 150 charts from No. 3.

"What really grabbed our attention was he was always doing a multitude of things," said ESPN Scouts Inc. recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert. "He caught the touchdown from tight end in the Army game, and he took reps at middle linebacker in the USC camp. He's the type of player the New England Patriots would covet.

"He's not only a defensive end; you could put him at linebacker, or if he was rated as a tight end, he'd probably be top five."

Powell played plenty of linebacker for Duffy, and might play that position at Florida.

His high school coach, though, is more impressed by what Powell has done off the field.

"Total transformation from kid to young man and everything that's involved in that from work ethic on field, in the weight room, in the classroom, how you treat people regardless of their stature and what their role is in life," Duffy said. "Just a complete turnaround. There were multiple, multiple counseling sessions, and great kids in the classes in front of him that led the way in terms of teaching him this is how you act."

All it took was a new family to help Powell recalibrate while his genetic clan reknitted itself.

Duffy pushed the would-be superstar toward older teammates, and suggested that he take notes.

USC sophomore starting tackle Tyron Smith, UTEP freshman starting defensive back DeShawn Grayson, Nebraska freshman linebacker Eric Martin and Arizona freshmen Terrence Miller (tight end) and Daniel Jenkins (running back) were all Rancho Verde teammates.

"That's what it was, Coach Duffy and DeShawn. I started spending more time with him on weekends, in the weight room," Powell said. "He'd tell me, 'This isn't right.' He was showing me right from wrong. DeShawn Grayson was one of those guys who was heavily recruited, and he took me under his wing. He was the guy I sat next to freshman year in locker room.

"He was one of the guys who told me I could stay varsity. He was heavily recruited, but stayed humble. He taught me to be humble, and I've seen a lot of guys who weren't. He's like a brother to me."

"D-Gray" and "Powie," as they often refer to one another, still speak nearly every day.

Powell is living with his mother, Tracy Mitchell, and seeing his father, Maurice Haley, regularly. All the family lives are humming for a young man who has grown up between the lines as a ninth grader, but took a little longer off the field.

"He's talkative [like he's] running for mayor, hugging the moms, kissing the babies and shaking hands," Duffy said. "He's to that point now where he's doing his own deal, making his own decisions."

That includes the decision to cross the country and become a Gator even though USC, right in his backyard, recruited him like mad and he went to countless Trojans games and camps.
Powell figures to help Florida lock up the No. 1 recruiting class in the land -- not that new USC coach Lane Kiffin and his staff have given up recruiting the nation's No. 1 prep family man.

"It came down to Florida and USC, and I just prayed on it," Powell said. "I love it. There were never any negatives. I love the love city, love the fans, love being around the players. I talk to [Florida defender] Carlos Dunlap all the time. There's no cockiness, no arrogance. Urban Meyer is great, the coaching staff is unbelievable. They're cool people. They really make me feel at home. "

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.