COLLEGE PARK -- Quietly, but hardly unnoticed, wide receiver Gene Thomas is slipping out of Maryland's offense.
This is the junior college transfer who burst across Maryland's football sky like a meteor, catching game-winning touchdown passes in the final minutes in the opening games against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
In the third game against Clemson, he caught a TD pass in a one-point loss. In Game 4, against North Carolina State, Thomas' catch set up the winning field goal. Since then, his only big play was a reverse he ran in from 19 yards out in a 23-20 triumph over Duke.
This would be a season's worth of big plays for anybody, but the troubling thing is that recently Thomas hasn't even been making many small plays.
Quarterback Scott Zolak completed 14 passes in last week's loss to Penn State -- none to Thomas. For the season, the transfer from Montgomery College-Rockville has only 14 catches for 306 yards and three TDs.
"It's a little frustrating," Thomas said. "I'm new to the offense. I can't put my finger on it. I'm running my routes. Maybe other guys are open. Maybe I did expect I'd be more involved after those early games, but I didn't have any reason to expect those big plays at the start, either."
Part of the answer, of course, is that, after a few games, teams were aware of Thomas and made appropriate adjustments. There has been some double coverage, but not enough to snuff out Thomas entirely.
Some people close to the team say Thomas isn't getting open often, primarily because he isn't running good routes. They feel he lacks discipline in that regard, perhaps because of relative inexperience at the major college level.
The other wide receiver, fifth-year senior Barry Johnson, doesn't have Thomas' speed, but does have the experience. Johnson has more than twice as many catches -- 31 -- as Thomas. H-back Frank Wycheck leads the team in catches with 58, followed by Johnson, tight end Bret Boehly (27), tailback Troy Jackson (22) and Thomas with his 14.
"Gene's routes need work," wide receivers coach Rod Sharpless acknowledged. "His routes aren't as crisp as Barry's."
* Wycheck keeps building on his school record for receptions -- the former record-holder, Greg Hill, had 51 -- but he is not likely to break into the Atlantic Coast Conference's top five. Wycheck has 58 with one game left, Saturday at Virginia.
Duke's Wes Chesson set the ACC mark of 74 in 1970. He is followed by Duke's Roger Boone (73), Duke's Clarkston Hines (68), Wake Forest's James Brim (66) and Duke's Mike Grayson and Wake's Ricky Proehl, tied for fifth with 65.