Ethan Horton allowed himself a moment today to wonder aloud about the endless capabilities of a North Carolina offense that utilizes three tailbacks of all-America quality.

"I guess it would be fun one day," Horton said, "to see what would happen if Coach (Dick) Crum let us each carry the ball 30 times in one game."

As it is, the three tailbacks -- Kelvin Bryant, Tyrone Anthony and Horton--are each averaging about 15 carries a game and are devastating opposing defenses.

The Tar Heels' 303 yards rushing per game ranks them fourth in the nation. When North Carolina plays Maryland Saturday afternoon here at Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heel backs will be facing a Terrapin rushing defense that has allowed only 66 yards rushing per game, also fourth best in the nation.

The three runners never are in the game at the same time, but each is averaging at least 80 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry.

Put them behind an offensive line that has two members weighing 290 pounds each and Carolina has an offense that operates like a bludgeon.

"You get a team that can methodically wear you down, and it can be a long afternoon," said Maryland Coach Bobby Ross.

What makes the Carolina three-tailback system even more difficult to defend is that each runner has a distinct style. A defensive adjustment is necessary every time the backs alternate.

"Bryant is the burner," Ross said. "Once he accelerates there are few people, if any, who can catch him. He finds the hole and goes by you. Horton is the pounder. He's 6 foot 3 and 218 pounds -- the run-over-you type. Anthony explodes into the hole before you can get set.

"All three of them would start for anybody in the country," continued Ross, formerly the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. "They pose a serious threat."

Several of the nation's top teams have two or three good running backs, but choose to play only one. But with Bryant sidelined with injuries this season and last, Crum was forced to play Horton and Anthony more than expected. Anthony, in the first start of his career last year, ran 224 yards against Wake Forest in place of the injured Bryant.

When all three are healthy, Crum sees no reason to bench any of them. In last year's Gator Bowl, Bryant rushed for 148 yards, Horton for 144. At Wake Forest on Oct. 9, Anthony ran for 179 yards, Bryant for 142.

"We aren't the only team with more than one good back," Crum said. "But they take the approach, 'We have one I-formation tailback and he'll play and that's it.'

"We'll play three.

"It's not much different than when I was coaching in high school and I was running the wing-T," Crum said. "Way back in the dark ages, you'd look for several good backs."

Crum has shed some light on those times. And the glare is too much for opposing defenses.

"Since we alternate and don't play at the same time, we wear a lot of defenses down in the fourth quarter," Horton said. "All of us are fresh and they're getting tired.

"Since our offensive line is so big and so good, it's usually the defensive lineman that get worn down first, then the linebackers and then the secondary."

"And we (the backs) do enough pass receiving," Horton added, "to keep the defenses off balance and prevent double coverage on our wide receivers."

Horton is third on the team in receptions, with 11 for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

He started his career last season as the third-string quarterback, but moved to tailback when Anthony was hurt. He started the next week, at Maryland, and ran 26 times for 94 yards. He was given the opportunity to move back to quarterback last spring, but chose to remain at tailback.

Horton and Anthony run the 40-yard dash in about 4.5 seconds. "Kelvin's in another class at 4.2 or 4.3," said Horton, an option quarterback in high school.

Anthony, a junior, is said to be the best technician. Rarely does he waste moves. After his performance at Wake, Anthony rushed for 183 yards against North Carolina State. He might be the third stringer against Maryland.

Should Maryland stop the Tar Heel runners, Carolina has a sophisticated enough passing offense to move the ball through the air. Backup quarterback Scott Stankavage took over for an injured Rod Elkins for several games and has thrown seven touchdowns and only one interception.

Crum has indicated the Tar Heels may throw 30 times or more, but he certainly will give Bryant, Horton and Anthony chances at doing it like he used to in the dark ages.