This was going to be the year Maryland tailback Steve Atkins made believers of his doubters.

But Atkins, who had shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years at College Park, once again fell victim to injuries.

A knee injury early in the Penn State game and a hamstring pull on the opening kickoff against North Carolina cut considerably into his effectiveness in two of Maryland's most important football games.

Some people at Maryland wondered openly if Atkins was tough enough? Did he make too much of his injuries?

"In his mind, no," said running back coach Tom Groom. "I can't get inside his body and know how it feels. I have to do a better job of coaching him to deal with these hurts and play with them if it's possible and safe.

"Every game he's been well, he's phenomenal."

Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne was concerned, too, calling Atkins into his office for a heart-to-heart conversation after the Penn State game.

After Atkins' talk with Claiborne, the junior tailback ripped off games of 92, 125 and 116 yards leading up to the North Carolina game.

The Tar Heels had a chance to knock Maryland out of the Atlantic Coast Conference race. For the chore, they brought their bruising defense, ranked No. 2 in the nation against scoring.

Atkins went down on the opening kickoff, and did little in a game Carolina won 16-7.

"It's not that he (Atkins) doesn't want to play with an injury," said Groom "The biggest thing is that he's one of these people who are just so proud. He doesn't want to be in a situation where he is not able to give his best.

"He's had to overcome a lot of things, the image people have of him, wondering if he's tough. In my mind, there's no question of his toughness. That was one of the things we liked about him when we recruited him.

"I told him that everything that has happened is history. I told him that's why they make tomorrows. I look for him to have a great bowl game. It's his chance to do the things he wasn't able to do."

Atkins admitted that this season, which culminates against Minnesota Dec. 22 in the Hall of Fame Bowl "has definitely been a disappointment.

"I've been having a lot of bad luck, ever since I've been here," he said. "It's hard for me to take, because I've never been hurt in high school.

"I hope I can make up for it some in the bowl game. I had hoped this would be one of my good years. I wouldn't blame the pro scouts if they felt unsure about me. I know I can take it. I know what I can do. It's just that this year didn't come out the way I thought.

"I didn't want to be like I was this year. It made me feel like I wasn't worth a nickel."

Atkins' plight was all but forgotten when sophomore George Scott came off the bench and broke Atkins' single-game rushing record in a three-game spurt when he gained a total of 581 yards. In one of the games, Scott also set a school record for carries with 42.

"I jokingly told coach Groom that it might be nice if I could every carry the ball 42 times," said Atkins. "I don't think I've ever carried it 30 times since I've been here."

That is partly because Maryland likes to alternate its tailbacks. But in the 1st three games, Scott was left to do the work alone with both Atkins and preacher Maddox hobbled.

Claiborne will start Scott against Minnesota, but Atkins is expected to make several appearances.

"I'm quite sure I'll get some playing time. At least I hope so," said Atkins. "I don't feel like I'm fighting for time, as long as I get to play.

'George surprised me a little bit. He's always been in good shape. He takes a lot of punishment. He can get hit and keep going. I like the way he runs."

Atkins seemed to become invisible after his most recent injury. While other injured players watched from the sidelines, Atkins preferred the stands, because it was painful to stand throughout the game. He says he spent a lot of time in his room, pondering.

There were a few weeks in which he was seldom seen. Atkins is not one to bleed in public. He and Scott both are so quiet, they could have an argument in the library without violating any rules.

Both of them, along with Maddox, will be back next year for what could be a fierce, season-long competition for playing time. It will be Atkins' last year to fulfill the potential that seems so obvious, yet so often obscured.

"This is the kind of situation every coach likes," said Groom. "If one of them gets hurt, we send in another one, and he does a great job, and the coach looks like a genius.

"I except Steve to have a fantastic year. He'll be a great one, no matter what."