He takes a handoff and blasts into the secondary for a sizeable gain. Or maybe he takes a handoff, runs right and suddenly stops to loft a perfect spiral to a receiver downfield.

Sometimes he lines as a receiver. Sometimes he punts -- at 50 yards a try.

Sometimes he returns punts and kickoffs. And in his spare time, he is an all-league defensive player at safety.

No, this is not some idealized character from a science-fiction-sports novel. It's Joe Howard, and he is entering his second year as the heart of the football team at Archbishop John Carroll High School.

Following in a long line of highly successful football players at the private school in Northeast Washington, Howard is one of the most versatile yet.

He led the Lions to the Metro Conference title last season as a junior, earning second team All-Met honors as a safety and all conference as both safety and tailback.

His one-man show against DeMatha in the title game last year is legendary.

With a shoulder injury plaguing him and his team trailing the Stags by 14-6 late in the first quarter, Howard entered the game and worked his magic.

Before it was all over, he had scored two touchdowns, including a game winner with 12 seconds remaining, and had led his team to an 18-14 victory.

His day's work included six carries for 72 yards and one TD, one completion for 26 yards, four receptions for 59 yards and a TD, and four punts averaging 39 yards. On defense, he made one interception and recovered a fumble.

For Howard, it all began on the Boys Club level.

"I started playing sports nine years ago at Number 10 Police Boys and Girls Club," recalled Howard. "There I gained confidence in my abilities while playing football and baseball. You can play so many positions that it allows you to get more knowledge of the sport."

Howard later played basketball, ran track and got involved in archery in the recreation department programs.

'he entered Carroll as a ninth grader and played JV football. Maus Collins, the highly successful coach and athletic director remembers.

"It doesn't take a whole lot to recognize an individual with exceptional talent," remarked Collins, who is one of the most successful high school coaches in the area. "We knew from the first time we saw him that he was extraordinary. He led the JV to an undefeated season during his sophomore year."

Collins says Howard has few weaknesses as a football player.

"He has good quickness on offense, he hits and reads well on defense, and he has a strong leg as a punter."

When Howard wasn't giving defenses and offenses headaches, he was starting at basketball point guard for the varsity during his sophomore season. He came into his own last season, leading the Lions to one of their most successful seasons in recent years. They finished 14-9 and represented the Metro Conference in the consolation game for the city title at Cole Field House. He averaged 13 points, nine assists and six steals per game.

Jack Bruen, former assistant at De Matha and now head coach at Carroll, says, "Joe has developed into one of the top guards in the area. He has great quickness and he penetrates well. He also plays tough defense."

"But the main thing about him is that he rises to the occasion in clutch or pressure situations. That's something you really can't coach. It's an intangible and he possesses that."

Among the schools that have shown interest in Howard's basketball skills

Boston College, the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and Indiana University are among the many that like his football skills.

So, if given the choice, which sport will he decide upon?

"I think I'd lean toward football at this point," said Howard. "I think because of my love for the game and because I can do so many things, it would be to my advantage to play football."

Although he is smallish (5 foot 9, 165 pounds) by standards of college football, Howard believes he can increase his weight to 190 without losing any quickness. He picked up 10 pounds over the summer, through lifting weights.

He now plays no less than five positions for the Lions, something he obviously won't do in college. So which position does he prefer? "I like the tailback position because I get a chance to get the ball rather than having to take the ball if I were on defense."

In the meantime, Howard will continue to keep coaches up late at night, trying to figure ways to contain him.

He says he has two goals. "I want to win another [football] championship and to go to the Cole Field House again, this time for the second game [the basketball championship]."

With his many skills, it seems a reasonable expectation.