When his older brother, Ron, suffered a knee injury with the Los Angeles Rams in 1978, Jeff Hostetler, then still in high school, began to reconsider football's place on his list of priorities.

When another brother, Doug, sat at home in a body cast for three months following a back injury he suffered while playing for Penn State in 1979, Hostetler was sure about reordering those priorities; he also decided that playing quarterback was safer than linebacker, the position his brothers played.

Now, Hostetler is on his way to becoming a success story on and off the field--a contender for the Heisman Trophy and a Rhodes Scholarship. He also is a strong contender to cause some problems for Maryland Saturday night when West Virginia visits the Terrapins at Byrd Stadium.

Some think Hostetler has the potential to be the best quarterback in the college game this year. He is 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds and, as his coach, Don Nehlen, says, he "can run, throw and think." He is the mirror image of Maryland's Boomer Esiason.

Since transferring from Penn State before the 1981 season and becoming a starter for the Mountaineers last year, Hostetler has demonstrated outstanding talent. At Oklahoma, in his first game as a Mountaineer, Hostetler's 321 yards passing and four touchdowns led to an upset of the Sooners. But he suffered an uncommon number of nagging injuries last year, and his main hope this season is to stay healthy.

If the first two games are any indication, he is on his way to realizing his potential. In only one half against Ohio University two weeks ago, Hostetler completed 15 of 23 passes for 205 yards. The next week, against Pacific, he completed 15 of 24 for 213 yards; so far, he has three touchdowns and no interceptions.

"His stats are good because we haven't played anybody," Nehlen said, then added, "but then again, his stats might not fluctuate much, anyway."

"My mental approach to the game is my biggest improvement," Hostetler said in a telephone interview. "But it's also good to be healthy. The most frustrating part about last year was playing in games and not being completely healthy."

Hostetler led West Virginia to a 9-3 record last year. But in the first month of the season, he was bruised and battered by the Sooners and the veteran defenses of Maryland and Pittsburgh.

His injuries--including a sprained ankle, strained ligaments in the toe and a bruised arch--limited his mobility and contributed to a 48 percent completion record. Still, he threw for 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

What makes Hostetler so good, observers generally agree, is what coaches call "good vision."

Hostetler says, "By good vision, they mean being able to read defenses; like knowing not only how to recognize a blitz, but throwing against it correctly . . . I think it comes partly from a lot of film watching; I'm a perfectionist."

No matter how well Hostetler does at West Virginia, he will be described as "that guy who transferred from Penn State," an issue Nehlen is tired of talking about. "He's been here almost three years," Niehlen said. "He'd like to be known as a Mountaineer."

But Hostetler knows the questions about Penn State will persist, especially now that Penn State hasn't found a capable quarterback in an 0-2 start.

"I was shocked when Penn State lost to Cincinnati," Hostetler said. "But I knew what those two quarterbacks were going through; the same thing I went through there (while competing for the starting spot with Todd Blackledge). You're scared to make a mistake because you figure you're coming out of the game."

Many of the Nittany Lions--some say as many as half the team--thought Hostetler should have started over Blackledge, who took Penn State to the national championship last year. But since only one quarterback plays in Joe Paterno's system, Hostetler sat, and then transferred.

The most impressive statistics he has compiled since arriving in Morgantown are in the classroom. He has received no grade below an A in two full years. His major is finance. This semester, with his team playing Boston College, Pitt, Penn State and Miami following Maryland, Hostetler has some tough weekday opponents: tax accounting, public finance, management systems, computer analysis and management studies.

"I love to watch Joe Montana and Dan Fouts, and, sure, I'd like to play pro football," Hostetler said. "But it just isn't the top priority. I've seen too many guys suffer an injury and then have nothing. I'll graduate in December, and then we'll see."