After three years of running in immense shadow cast by sometimes awesome, often injured Steve Atkins, Maryland tailback Preacher Maddox has wrestled the starting position from his best friend.

Placing the other's feelings above personal ambitions, the junior speedsters have been embivalent battlers in a war that nearly ended in their freshman year in the darkness of a September morning.

That's when Maddox bolted out of his dormitory bed and began packing suitcases Atkins stirred in the other bed and, without pausing to wipe the sleep from his brain, began to dress.

"If you leave," said Atkins, "I leave."

Without further ado, Maddox and Atkins - high school stars from different Virginia valley towns - were ready to deliver their dream to another location.

"We wanted to go to Virginia Tech," said Maddox, who, at the time, thought 4 a.m. a perfectly suitable time to arrive, albeit arrangement.

They were painfully homesick, but location alone was not the attraction at VPI.

"They run the wishbone," said Maddox, who remembers their fantasy with apparent glee.

Could they author the future, they'd write in the three running backs wishbone, with both starting in one backfield, cranking out heroic efforts a la Starsky and Hutch.

But the escape to the nearest wishbone ended in giggles at their dormitory door. At Maryland they have shared the tailback position, often alternating by series or habrea, with Maddox starting only when Atkins was hurt.

This week, Maddox has won the starting position from a relatively healthy Atkins. Two Saturdays ago at Penn State, Atkins strained a knee ligament, an injury that was not serious but provoked disturbing memories of last year, when he hurt the other knee and sat out the last eight games.

Coach Jerry Claiborne, finding Atkins healed but playing tentatively, will start Maddox against Syracuse at Byrd Stadium on Saturday, with Atkins in ready reserve.

"I had a long talk with coach Claiborne," said Atkins. "I didn't think I was favoring the knee, but maybe, subconsciously, I have been."

Until the burly Atkins can return to his run-over-your-face form, his little (5-foot-9) sidekick from Staunton will start.

After being Atkins' roommate for three years, Maddox thinks of tailback as one more thing they've shared, including their frequent double-dates. The starting honor is something he's borrowing.

"We talked about it the other night," said Maddox. "I told him I didn't think I had the starting position, really. I don't think I've won it. Steve just isn't . . . I don't know how to say it, but he just isn't doing too good right now.

"I can't much blame him. If you're a running back and you lose your knees, you're gone. Steve still has a little doubt about his knee. I was the same way last spring, when I hurt my knee. I was conscious of it, trying to hit and fall on the other side.

"You're always thinking about it. But sooner or later, Steve should come out of it."

Atkins, ever on the verge of joining the nation's great backs, was asked if he was upset.

"Upset?" asked Atkins. "No. I'm happy for Preacher."

Maddox, who rushed for 113 yards last week at N.C. State, didn't capture anyone's attention until last year, after Atkins was injured.

Atkins had been a terror in the first four games, averaging 124 yards per Saturday, while Maddox watched.

"I was unhappy. I wanted to play," said Maddox. "I thought we'd be alternating, but I only got in for four or five plays.

"I'd get impatient and upset, but I never lost confidence. I could understand the situation - they really didn't know what I could do."

They found out against N.C. State after Atkins wrenched a knee early in the game. At first, Atkins stayed in with a fretting roommate on the sidelines.

"He hopped - actually hopped! - through a hole for eight yards," said Maddox. Never one to bottle his opinions (his mother nicknamed him Preacher because he was always talking), Maddox let his concern be known.

"I told the coach, 'Take him out of there before they kill him,'" said Maddox.

His advice was followed and Maddox entered the game.

"Everything seemed completely familiar like I'd been there," said Maddox."I had dreamed it, I think. I'd get hit and I'd remember it from before exactly. I knew I would have a good day."

He carried the ball 21 times for 138 yards, his first college game of more than 100 yards. "I wanted to play," said Maddox, "but I didn't want to play like that with him hurt."

Maddox didn't have another good outing until Kentucky three weeks later. Once again he sensed a big day coming.

"I sat up in the night an thought about that game," said Maddox. "Every time I walked by the stadium, I got a funny feeling."

He rushed for 129 yards on 27 carries and soon the short, quick figure scooting by tacklers became a recognizable sight at College Park.

Although Maddox can bench-press 370 pounds and is a stocky 188 pounds, his height dims dreams of playing professionally.

"I say I'm 5-10," said Maddox. "It makes me feel good."