Three players who formed the offensive core of the University of Virginia's 1985 football team were among 13 persons charged today by federal prosecutors with conspiring to distribute cocaine.

The charges against tailback Barry Word, the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year last winter; Howard C. Petty Jr., who would have been the starting tailback this fall, and Kenneth P. Stadlin, Virginia's record-holding place kicker, brought to 24 the number of people who have been charged this week in a nine-month investigation into drug trafficking here.

Eleven others were indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury in the joint state-federal investigation, which began after local police seized 3.5 pounds of cocaine and a small spiral notebook with the names of suspected drug customers in a farmhouse near here.

The inquiry had troubled many officials and alumni of the state-supported university, which has prided itself on stressing academics rather than big-time collegiate sports.

Some university officials greeted today's announcement, made jointly by Attorney General Edwin Meese III in Washington and federal prosecutors here, with relief that more students weren't involved.

University President Robert M. O'Neil and Athletic Director Dick Schultz said the small number of charges against students showed the university's drug problem was no worse than that of other schools.

Meese praised the university for cooperating with the investigation, saying the school "performed a public service that is an example for the nation." To combat cocaine trafficking, Meese said "it is essential that every segment of our society, including our educational institutions, support both law enforcement and programs to reduce the demand for drugs."

Petty, 22, the only player still at the university, will not contest the charge against him, according to his lawyer, John C. Lowe of Alexandria. Schultz said that Petty, who played high school football in Annapolis, was automatically suspended from the team when the charge was filed. There appears to be no chance he will play this fall.

Neither Word, from southern Virginia, nor his lawyer could be reached for comment. Stadlin, who played high school football in Hampton, could not be located.

Prosecutors said the three were minor figures in a drug ring that distributed cocaine in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Florida.

The charge against each -- conspiracy to distribute less than a kilogram of cocaine -- is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

U.S. Attorney John Perry Alderman, who has successfully cloaked much of the investigation in secrecy, told a news conference he tipped off Schultz last week that three of his players would be accused.

"I thought in all fairness he would want a few days" to plan how to answer reporters' questions, Alderman said.

He said he did not offer the same information to lawyers for the other defendants. Asked if that constituted favoritism, Alderman replied: "You can call it whatever you choose to."

Schultz said he did not take any action after receiving the information early last week.

"It was given to me in confidence and I retained that as confidential information," he said at a separate news conference.

President O'Neil and football coach George Welsh said Schultz had warned them that the charges would be filed against Petty, Stadlin and Word.

The three accounted for more than half of Virginia's total points last year.

Interviewed by telephone from Nantucket, Mass., Welsh said the loss of Petty would hurt the team considerably.

"Somebody like Petty is very difficult to replace," he said.

"You don't have many around like that."

Petty has volunteered to help the university in its campaign against drugs.

Schultz said Petty and Stadlin had apologized to him last week for embarrassing the university and athletic department.

Lowe said Petty was involved in nothing more than "recreational use and providing some cocaine for people at a very low level" -- offenses he said took place before the 1985-86 school year.

Lowe said Petty has known for 4 or 5 months that he would be charged.

Word, who was the third-round draft choice for the New Orleans Saints, rushed for 1,224 yards last year despite being withheld from the season-ending game against Maryland because of an academic suspension. He later left the university.

The professional team disclosed today it had suspended negotiations with him July 7 when his lawyer informed the team of his connection to the investigation.

Stadlin, who graduated in May, reportedly was planning to play for the Chesapeake Bay Neptunes, a semiprofessional team in Norfolk.

Schultz said Word and Stadlin were not tested for cocaine use after the athletic department's drug testing program began in December because their eligibility had lapsed.

Petty was tested, Schultz said. "I'm assuming he tested negative because we did not get a report be tested positive, and we would have."

Alderman and others involved in the investigation repeatedly refused to estimate the extent of drug use at the university, saying that was not the purpose of the probe.

"After months of investigation, if only one current student is charged, it's not an occasion for solace or relief, but it does suggest the investigation was fairly narrowly focused," O'Neil said.

Alderman said the athletes were among those least involved in the drug ring. "To assist in placing the charges against these three athletes in perspective, I point out to you that the largest quantity of cocaine attributable to any one of them at any one time by the investigation was one ounce," he said. Others were charged with at one time having three kilograms, he said.

The charges filed by prosecutors and the indictments returned by the grand jury painted a portrait of an operation controlled by Trevis Lynch Poole, 25, who already had pleaded guilty to a cocaine charge

It was the raid on his farm in nearby Fluvanna County a year ago that prompted the grand jury investigation.

Poole faces 19 counts carrying potential prison terms of life without parole plus 374 years and $3.8 million in fines. The most serious count, known as the drug kingpin statute, accused him of running a continuing criminal enterprise. His lawyer, Marvin D. Miller, has said Poole will plead not guilty to that charge and has accused prosecutors of using the death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias to call attention to the investigation here.

The Charlottesville indictment charges that Poole earned more than $165,000 last year on which he failed to pay taxes. It also charged that he attempted to hide his profits by buying gold coins that he hid in a safe deposit box, buying cars for the cocaine ring that he registered under other people's names, and renting property under other people's names.

Six of the defendants indicted along with Poole by the grand jury turned themselves in today and were released on personal recognizance bonds after a brief appearance before a federal magistrate. Their arraignments were set for Tuesday.

The other suspects are expected to make court appearances during the next week. Those charged in criminal informations, including the three football players, will be asked to enter pleas.

Defendants who are charged in informations have waived their right to a grand jury indictment, often because they have negotiated a plea with prosecutors. Alderman refused to comment today on whether any such agreements had been negotiated.

Among those charged today were Poole's niece, a woman officials described as his girlfriend, and a 26-year-old New York commodities broker, Javier Richard Cook. Also charged were a Florida man, Howard Lucian Hain, 45, described as the cocaine supplier, and others, including waitresses, a drywall installer and an automotive service manager.

The investigation previously produced more than a dozen indictments, including that of Kevin A. Turner, a former university football player, and Ruben D. Vahos, a law student later denied his diploma. Both pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution and are awaiting sentencing July 28.

The grand jury recessed today for two months and is expected to resume its inquiry in the fall. "There's plenty of work for the grand jury yet," Alderman said.