Entering his senior season, North Carolina tailback Amos Lawrence has compiled a set of astonishing statistics: three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, 17 games in which he ran for 100 yards or better, a 5.1-yard-per-carry rushing average. This was to be the year for Lawrence. There was even Heisman Trophy talk during preseason.

But as the 14th-ranked Tar Heels (2-0), 4 1/2-point favorites, prepared for Saturday's 1 p.m. showdown with 19th-ranked Maryland (3-0) in old Kenan Stadium, the lithe tailback who was dubbed "Famous Amos" in high school, talked of criticism and whispers, not praise and cheers.

"When I was a freshman all I ever wanted to do was play football," he said. "I was always enthusiastic, always intense, I always had the adrenaline flowing. Now, I get down a lot I find myself wondering why I got involved with football.

"I keep telling myself I've come so far I can't stop now. That's what keeps me going. But, still, I wonder."

The whispers hurt even more. Behind the impassive face, Lawrence seethes because he knows people say that he isn't tough, that his injuries of the last two seasons have been imagined, that he won't play with pain.

"I don't consider myself the bragging kind," he said. "But when I look at what I've done here and then hear what people are saying about me, it's upsetting.

"Why would I fake an injury when I know I can play the game well? Why would I want to avoid playing? I think it's really unfair when the fans and my coaches think I'm faking an injury."

Publicly, Coach Dick Crum never has criticized Lawrence. Last season, when Lawrence missed four games with a groin pull, rumors abounded that he wasn't hurt.

"I think Amos has always given us as much as he can," Crum said. "It's true that he isn't the most durable back and he does watch himself on the field. He knows when he's tired and then he takes himself out.

"But I've never believed Amos wasn't hurt when he said he was. I think he's been subjected to a lot of unfair publicity because he's been such a visible player almost since the first day he got here."

Lawrence maintains that when he first suffered his groin injury last season, during a loss to Wake Forest, the coaches refused to believe he was hurt.

"The next week, if I had gotten a lot of treatment, I might have been okay," he said. "Instead, they made me practice.They thought I was faking. I'll never forget that."

Clearly, these are not the best of times for Lawrence. In Carolina's first two games, he has split time with sophomore Kelvin Bryant, a player too gifted to sit on the bench, and gained 205 yards.

Bryant is bigger, stronger and faster than Lawrence.

But when he is healthy, Lawrence has an almost mystical running style. He has that seemingly magical ability to avoid solid tackles and he always seems to twist or bounce at the right moment.

Now, he says he is ready. He wants the football. "I would like to carry 25 or 30 times against Maryland," he said. "This is the time to really get going. I want to play. This is my last year."

It is revealing that Lawrence says his happiest days at Carolina were as a freshman. For most college students, the opposite is true. Lawrence came here from the projects of Norfolk, Va. He had been raised by his mother after his father died when Amos was 2. He grew up as an introvert.

"I almost never let people see inside me," he said, "because I don't think they can understand me."

People always understand Lawrence -- with a football in his hand. In one high school game, he rushed for 411 yards. He was recruited by everyone and would have gone to Ohio State had Woody Hayes not told thim that, at 5 feet-11 and 190 pounds, he would be a Buckeye wingback, not a running back.

"Running the ball has been a part of me as long as I can remember," he said. "It's the only time I really feel free. Ricky Barden (a high school teammate, then a UNC freshman) told me I could play right away if I went to Carolina."

Freshman season was dream-like for Lawrence. He rushed for 1,211 yards as the Tar Heels won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and he was named rookie of the year.

The dream began to sour in that year's Liberty Bowl. Lawrence sprained an ankle and watched from the bench as the Tar Heels lost to Nebraska, 21-17. Nevertheless, the future was so bright.

"I think doing what he did as a freshman put unbelievable pressure on Amos," said Carolina center Rick Donnalley, also a freshman that year. "Because he rushed for 1,000 yards, everyone expected him to get 1,500 as a sophomore, 2,000 as a junior and win the Heisman Trophy his senior year. That's a lot to ask."

Bill Dooley, who recruited Lawrence, left here after 1977 and was replaced by Crum.

Then came the injuries, the doubts, the whispers. Lawrence still rushed for 1,043 as a sophmore and 1,019 last season, finishing the season by rushing for 118 yards in UNC's 17-15 Gator Bowl upset of Michigan.

There still was another year to accomplish the Herculean feats predicted for him.

Crum says he hopes Lawrence gets a shot at the pros next season. But his coach thinks it will be as a flanker. Lawrence, who will be about a year short of his degree in recreation this May, does not want to think that far ahead.

"I've changed a lot since I first got here," he said. "I've learned a lot about people. I look up in the stands and I know if I gain 100 yards and score the touchdowns all the people there are going to be on the bandwagon, cheering me on.

"But if I don't do it, or if I'm hurt, they'll be on me. They get satisfaction out of me running the ball. If I don't satisfy them, the criticism starts.

"Sometimes I get so frustrated I want to cry. Why can't they understand? All I'm trying to do is jplay the best I can."