COLLEGE PARK -- The 1990 football season was only two games old when Maryland got the notion it had a weapon that was both lethal and delightful.
In his first two games after transferring from Montgomery College-Rockville, Terps receiver Gene Thomas caught passes for game-winning touchdowns in the final minutes. Next, in Game 3, was 16th-ranked Clemson and another Thomas touchdown catch, although it was not enough to avert an 18-17 defeat.
After that, however, opponents caught on. Thomas became a marked man. He was double-teamed.
"At first, I just seemed to be in the right situations," Thomas said as he prepared for this season's opener Saturday against Virginia. "It did seem easy to get open. But as the season went on, it got tougher."
Although he caught a pass that set up the winning field goal against North Carolina State and had a touchdown catch in the 35-30 win over Virginia that concluded the regular season, Thomas had only 17 receptions for the year.
What does that augur for the season that starts with the Virginia rematch?
It can be pointed out that Thomas touched the ball 18 times last year (once on a reverse) and scored five touchdowns. But even he admits he chafed when his production dwindled after his early heroics.
"They kind of keyed on me, with double coverage," Thomas said. "Sometimes I was frustrated. But it left other people open."
When the Terps are asked what steps are being taken to get Thomas open more often, they are guarded in their responses. Quarterback Jim Sandwisch says there are "some plays just for him" and Thomas says he is running "a few new routes."
Until recently, coach Joe Krivak was concerned primarily with the slight hamstring pull Thomas suffered two weeks ago.
"Let's get him on the field first," Krivak said. "Gene missed some practice. Timing is so important at that position. You have to work all the time at it."
Thomas insists he is sound now. Indeed, injuries to other wide receivers prompted the coaches to switch Thomas from flanker to split end on Monday.
Marcus Badgett was at split end, but has been nagged by knee and wrist injuries. Dan Prunzik broke a finger. Against Virginia, Thomas will start at split end and Richie Harris, previously his backup at flanker, will open there.
"We want to have our two best guys on the field, Gene and Richie," said assistant coach Kurt Van Valkenburgh. "We hope to get Gene the ball more and we might be able to do that from the X [split end] position."
Coming out of Rockville High, Thomas was a 20th-round selection of the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 baseball draft. He spurned the Giants and went to junior college.
He had planned to play centerfield for Maryland last spring, but decided football spring practice was a wiser course. He played this summer for Mercury Van Lines in a Washington industrial league and batted .432 with 15 stolen bases. He intends to play for the Terps next spring.
"It's a good feeling to get the opportunity to play two sports and I'm trying to produce in at least one so I can get some pro looks," Thomas said. "I'd like to be considered for both drafts."
Maryland yesterday christened the press box in the new Athletics Welcome Center at Byrd Stadium as The Joe Blair/Jack Zane Media Work Area.
They have been the sports information directors for most of Byrd's 40 years. The university has no more loyal and devoted employees than these two men. A plaque will be on display in the press box in their honor. Blair is now an assistant sports information director and Zane is the ticket manager.