In his best season, Cornelius Quarles, former fullback at Howard University, barely managed to gain 356 yards. Thus, the 6-foot, 220-pounder from Richmond wasn't the least bit surprised he was passed over in the 1982 National Football League draft.

"I just never got the playing time I felt I deserved at Howard," Quarles said. "I always felt I could play. The coaches there just didn't give me the opportunity. Even though I was out of football a year, I was confident I could go somewhere and play. Fortunately, someone gave me a chance to prove myself."

That someone was the Birmingham Stallions. After signing as a free agent with the U.S. Football League team, a rusty Quarles spent a week on the development squad and two weeks on the bench watching. But a rash of injuries forced Quarles into the lineup and he hasn't looked back since.

In his first start four games ago, Quarles rushed 96 yards and scored on a 39-yard run to help the Stallions (3-5) defeat Arizona, 16-7. Quarles since has become the team's leading rusher, 327 yards on 68 carries, and 12th in the league. One good block here Sunday against the Washington Federals (1-7) could spring the hard-running 23-year-old and give him more yards than he totaled in his best season at Howard.

"That would be something," he said, "to have more yards in just five games than I had in one college year. The guy I replaced (Ken Talton) is healthy now and I have to keep working hard to remain a starter. Every game, I feel I'm improving and I know people are expecting things from me. It took me a long time to get started and I don't plan to give this (opportunity) up easily. I'd like nothing better than to come home and do that with my friends and family watching. They haven't seen me play in a couple of years and I'd like to show them something."

Right now, Quarles' biggest fans are quarterback Reggie Collier and his offensive line.

"We're probably the youngest team in the USFL," Quarles said. "Reggie is just now learning how to deal with those complicated defensive alignments and we don't have too many NFL veterans. We're coming along slowly but we'll get there.

"In the beginning of the season, we had a good defense, but our offense was sluggish. Now we're starting to jell. Our offensive line is really doing the job now."

Collier is the key to the Stallions' success. A former Southern Mississippi star, he was the Stallions' No. 1 draft choice and has been both brilliant and bad. Lack of patience has been Collier's biggest problem, but Coach Rollie Dotsch isn't about to replace him.

"Some people have been critical of me because we're still using Collier," Dotsch said. "He's young but we're sticking with him. The veteran quarterbacks around the league are as good as they're going to be, but Reggie is going to get better and better. He has all the natural ability you want in a quarterback."

Quarles agreed. "He's going to be something else. Just give him time."

Ditto for Quarles.