Seventeen months after his first organized football game, Derrick Wake received a football scholarship offer from Penn State.

Wake, a senior starter at tight end and defensive end at DeMatha High, never had played football until his sophomore year at the Hyattsville private school, opting instead to concentrate on basketball for the freshman and junior varsity teams. But the transition from the court to the field has been smooth and rapid.

The 6-foot-3, 237-pound Wake also has received scholarship offers from Michigan, Maryland, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Ohio State and Richmond. (He's not expected to pick a school until December.) Not that Wake was expecting any offers when he began playing in August of 1997--or even when DeMatha football coach Bill McGregor approached him in the school's cafeteria last February.

"Coach McGregor came down and said I had received a scholarship from Penn State," Wake said. "I started laughing. I thought he was joking or telling me that to get me motivated to continue working out. So Coach McGregor went to his office and came back and showed me the letter with the offer."

McGregor--whose third-ranked Stags (6-0-1) host No. 8 Gonzaga (6-0-1) Saturday, said college coaches like Wake's size, speed and work ethic.

"Derrick came to football kind of late," McGregor said. "But he has worked himself into a great player. You can see him improve every day."

Wake said he always believed if he went to college for sports it would be for basketball. That was the sport he played throughout his childhood and at Hyattsville's Boys Club and the AAU level. McGregor believes Wake could make DeMatha's basketball team if he wanted. But these days, the only basketball he plays is at a local recreation club on Sunday afternoons.

Instead, Wake focuses on football--much to the surprise of his parents, Alvin Wake and Darlene Williams-Wake.

"I am still shocked at the letters and attention Derrick is getting from colleges," said Williams-Wake, a computer manager for a public advocacy firm. "I still do not know much about football, I just try to follow number 89 [Wake's jersey number] on the field and wait for people to start cheering. There are people at my office who played football and are big fans. They are the ones who are really surprised when I tell them that we got handwritten letters from coaches like Joe Paterno."

Some of Wake's best work has come not on the football field but in the swimming pool. As a lifeguard in Hyattsville this past summer, Wake saved three swimmers who were in danger of drowning.

"I always thought saving someone would be real nerve-wracking," Wake said. "But really it was just instinctual. I did not even realize what I was doing until later."

Wake also enjoys surfing the Internet on his computer. He has become adept enough that he sometimes answers Internet-related questions from his parents--both of whom work with computers. But his computer skills also have saved him from getting in trouble with colleges.

While on the Internet one night, Wake read a Web page that reported he had told University of Maryland coaches to stop recruiting him.

"I never said anything like that," Wake said. "Maryland's coaches called and said, 'Why don't you want to talk to us? Did we do something wrong?'

I had to tell them the report was wrong, that I never said that. I do not know where these people get things like that."

Still, for the most part, the attention Wake has received is good. Coaches from Michigan flew to Hyattsville last week to watch Wake practice.

Coaches from Auburn, West Virginia and South Carolina visited the school last Friday to see Wake.

It's going well--not that you could tell by talking to Wake.

"Derrick is very humble and very quiet about the attention he has been getting," McGregor said. "He is very coachable and does whatever you tell him to do.

Plus, he is a terrific kid. He will have a lot of opportunities to do well in football--and in life."

CAPTION: DeMatha tight end-defensive end Derrick Wake (89) quickly has become a force for the No. 3 Stags. The 6-foot-3, 237-pound senior did not put on pads until he was a sophomore, choosing instead to focus on basketball. But his relatively late start hasn't deterred many schools--including Penn State, which was the first to offer a scholarship--from pursuing him.