When he was younger, Joe Howard watched the Notre Dame football highlights most fall Sunday mornings. He dreamed about deep post and fly patterns and holding the ball aloft in the end zone as fans of the Fighting Irish cheered.

The dream has become reality in his freshman year -- after the 5-foot-9, 163-pound all-around athlete was on the verge of going to another school.

Howard was a two-time all-Met end and safety at Carroll High School and The Washington Post defensive player of the year in 1980. But Irish recruiters very nearly passed him over.

Howard had signed a conference letter of intent with North Carolina, but two days before the national signing deadline, Notre Dame decided to come after him. The man Carroll teammates called "Mr. Everything" never hesitated.

"I was one of the last people to sign here and I knew they only came after me because they didn't get a couple other people," Howard said this week from South Bend, Ind. "I know the North Carolina people were a bit mad, but Notre Dame was where I always wanted to go."

Still, after six weeks there, Howard was having second thoughts. He spent the first three weeks on the freshman team and the next three standing on the Irish sideline. He had two runs from scrimmage as a wingback and three kickoff returns.

Against Southern California, Howard returned a kickoff 56 yards. The next week, senior tight end Dean Masztak had knee surgery and Coach Gerry Faust was forced to change his lineup.

"We learned, after a couple of losses, there's no substitute for speed," Faust said. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to find a place for Joe. When Dean went down, we moved Tony (Hunter) to tight end. That left the split end spot open. And after Joe's kickoff return, we knew he could help us."

Howard, now known as "Small Wonder" to teammates, welcomed the switch from wingback to split end. He had caught everything thrown his way in practice and couldn't wait to run onto the field with the starting unit against Navy two weeks ago. It was a smashing debut.

He caught five passes for 115 yards and a 52-yard touchdown, and scored on a 13-yard reverse in Notre Dame's 38-0 victory.

"After that game I knew I could play college ball," Howard said. "My confidence really picked up. Making your first college catch and scoring a touchdown will do that for you. We think we have the best secondary in the country, and after going against them all week you think you can beat anybody."

Last week Howard beat two more defensive backs, catching touchdown passes of 58 and 96 yards -- a school record -- as the Irish defeated Georgia Tech, 35-3, to even their record at 4-4.

"He's playing like a veteran," Faust said. "He doesn't say much, but he has nerves of steel. We had reservations about signing him because he isn't the biggest guy in the world. But his size hasn't been a factor. His quickness adds something to our attack and has made us a more explosive team. Joe's a threat every time he lines up."

Howard admits he would hate to see his mother's last two phone bills, but with his morale improved has stopped calling home as much.

"I'm doing better in class because I'm not as uptight as I was," Howard said. "I know I still need to work on some things, like reading defenses, blocking, things like that. But I'm relaxed now because I'm playing."

But Howard hasn't seen the Sunday morning highlights of Irish games the last two weeks.

"I finally got a chance to prove I could play," he said, "and I have to work to stay out there. I don't have much time for TV any more."