Perhaps because he always has been small, tailback Allen Pinkett wasn't thinking big when he entered Notre Dame three months ago.

"I was hoping to play in blowouts and contribute on special teams," said Pinkett, who claims he is 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, but that is being generous. "After I got here, I found that I did better than I expected. I started playing and working harder. There were four tailbacks ahead of me on the depth chart and two other freshmen, so I set my goal to become the No. 3 tailback."

But he has done much better than that. After back-to-back 100-yard-plus games, including a 76-yard run Saturday against then No. 1 Pittsburgh, he is on the verge of becoming a big man on campus. He's already shown that he has those special talents that could make him the next standout Notre Dame running back, although he remains properly cautious about his offensive role.

"I know my place on the totem pole," he said. And that place, until told otherwise, means he could continue to play behind senior Phil Carter, even if he has outgained his more experienced teammate by 200 yards the last two weeks.

But others are not as cautious about Pinkett, who last year was the big man at Sterling's Park View High School, a Class AA Virginia school located just far enough outside of Washington to have kept his all-America exploits (all-state two years, 4,700 yards, 57 touchdowns) hidden from wide public exposure.

"Allen Pinkett's development is crucial to our offense," said Notre Dame Assistant Coach Rod Hudson. "He adds a dimension we lost when (starting tailback) Greg Bell got hurt. He returns the big-play kind of back to our offense. He can be stopped on two or three plays, but he has the ability to turn the next run into a touchdown. He's got that kind of quickness."

And he has the right size to excel in the Irish offense. For once, he has found that being small is an asset.

"I found I really have had more success running here than in high school," said Pinkett, who was 5-7, 145 pounds as a Park View freshman fullback. "The linemen are so big I can get behind them and hide and by the time the defense finds me, I can get through the hole and take off. It really works, no kidding."

Pinkett is a slashing runner who has learned to avoid direct contact with large linebackers. "I want to survive," he said. He should have no trouble surviving off the field. For one reason, he's intelligent (3.5 high school GPA with a college major in aerospace engineering). He's also loquacious and good-humored, the proper ingredients for gaining press clippings to accompany those yards.

Yet the irony about his sudden success is that, until last November when he first was contacted by the school, he disliked Notre Dame.

"I was a North Carolina man all the way," he said. "It was a shock to hear from Notre Dame so late. I felt that they didn't think I was very good, because they recruit only the best athletes in the country and they never talked to me. So I guess I wasn't that good. I hated the school."

But Pinkett slipped from the grasp of Carolina after one trip to South Bend. "I could have have committed with that one visit, right then," he said. "It was just the atmosphere there. The campus is small, it's one big melting pot with no bad vibes. And that Golden Dome did it. It swung me."

Pinkett is making the most of his opportunities. He didn't play in the opener against Michigan, but after Bell broke his leg, Pinkett's game time gradually was increased. Fifteen minutes before the Navy game two weeks ago, Coach Gerry Faust told him he was starting, instead of the bigger, but slower, Carter.

"I didn't have time to get excited," said Pinkett, who gained 129 yards that day.

Now, eight games into his freshman season, he has carved out a small niche of Notre Dame tradition with his two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Pittsburgh. Until then, his outstanding football memory was a bad one. Even though he scored five touchdowns and gained 230 yards in the state high school final as a junior, he was stopped inches short of the goal trying for a conversion that would have won the game.

"After the Pittsburgh game, Coach Faust told us that 15 years from now we'll be sitting in a bar, drinking a Coke, and some guy will be talking about Notre Dame football," said Pinkett. "He'll say, 'I remember the day Notre Dame upset Pittsburgh.'

"And I'll be able to say, 'Yeah, I remember that game, too. I played in it.' Nobody can take that away from me now."