The soft-spoken young man from the Nation's Capital, who plays strong safety for the University of Virginia, wondered why the great army of people he encounters each day is apparently so frightened by his appearance.

Lester Lyles is, by any set of standards, young and handsome enough to command a higher level of respect. And you would think, for all his glory last year as an all-academic Atlantic Coast Conference player, that the St. Albans High graduate would draw an impressive following of hangers-on. Not so.

"People keep clear of me," he said, his voice plucking hostile heart strings. "Why, I wonder? I've hurt no one."

Then, with a little pout, he leans back into the embrace of the brown plaid love seat and asks a silly question: "You think it's my lightning bolt, don't you?"

And he tells his story. "A lot of people look at me like I'm crazy. When I'm out with friends, I say, 'Why do people keep looking at me, then taking off in the opposite direction?' And they tell me why. They know. I've got this lightning bolt for a hair cut.

"They say, 'Come on, Lester. Who else in the world wears a lightning bolt on his head?' "

Used to be, there was little pride in being called a Wahoo. Being noticed was like being cursed by a vile and irreverent tongue, and those players of common sense avoided giving anyone the impression that they helped field a team of perennial losers, a team that has not had back-to-back winning seasons in 31 years.

Said Lyles, "Folks around here didn't care. The fans didn't care if we won or lost or even played. As a freshman, I would sit in the stands and listen to what the people said about the football team. It wasn't nice. It was cruel. And my view about myself and about what I was doing changed in a real hurry."

Those days, under a yawning list of unsuccessful coaches that reached its nadir during the reign of Dick Bestwick, during whose last season (1981) the Cavaliers went 1-10, appear to have vanished with the arrival of George Welsh. In these last hurried days before the season opener against Clemson Saturday at Scott Stadium, players have emerged from the closet of their embarrassment, some sporting hair cuts that reveal much about the growing pride in the Virginia football program.

Welsh, however, has no illusions. He led Virginia to a 6-5 season last year and has set his goals at nothing greater than equalling that rare good season. "The key for us in the next few years," Welsh said, "is not to regress. We're practicing the way we should. We're a tougher team, and blessed with a little more speed. We're quicker than we ever were. And the players are making the sacrifice.

"I don't know that we have all the talent or depth that you'd want. But we're getting closer. We probably need one more year to be where we want to be."

Welsh came to Virginia from Navy, where he was the winningest coach in that school's history. He shrugs off his accomplished past by saying, "I just stayed there longer than anybody else, that's all," and folds his lips into a sassy half-smile. He is so very sober, so dry and humorless this day in his office trailer at University Hall, that you wonder how he could possibly summon the fire and intensity to sway the passions of 100 young men.

Bob Olderman, the offensive left guard, said, "Don't be deceived. He may come across a certain way off the field, but he can get real emotional during practice or a game, and it's infectious."

Lyles, full of reminiscences, could not help but draw "laughable" comparisons between Bestwick and Welsh, a certifiable coachaholic who begins his working day at home, at about 5 a.m. Lyles said, "The 1981 season with Bestwick was like a joke when I look back on it. I was so naive coming in. The coaches were all so lackadaisical on the field and the players were, too. People didn't care, it seemed. And that's how I thought college football was before Coach Welsh came. Welsh is more organized and professional. With Bestwick, it was sometimes like high school out here . . . "

Welsh, ever the realist, has not called the Clemson game "ours," as have many of his players. Clemson defeated Appalachian State Saturday, 40-7, and Welsh knows well the terrific power of the South Carolina school. He offers this analysis of the team Virginia has never beaten in 23 games: "We'll beat 'em when we deserve to beat 'em, probably not before. But you always have a chance.

"My first year here, we weren't ready mentally and didn't have a prayer. Last year, we simply didn't think we could beat them. There's a better feeling this year, but we'll have to play well and they'll have to not play well. Clemson's usually a much better team around midseason, so hopefully, that will be to our advantange."

Only three days ago, Welsh named Kevin Ferguson, who played eight games last year at flanker, as the starting quarterback. Ferguson, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound sophomore from Appomattox, said, "sure, I wish I had known long before this week that I would get the start, but there was really no telling who would win the job until now. I'm glad I'm in, and I'm confident. My dreams have not been nightmares. I feel we'll look pretty good against Clemson."

Welsh called the decision to start Ferguson "one of the toughest choices I ever had to make. But Kevin's a fine athlete. He can do a lot of things for you. When we first saw him here, the coaches all said he could play tight end or linebacker or in the secondary. He could have been a wideout. He can do all those things, but now we'll see if he can play quarterback."

Ferguson, however, is not the only quarterback with whom Welsh has expressed concern over the last few days. Against Virginia last year, Clemson's Mike Eppley led his team to touchdowns the first three times he touched the ball. "He's definitely a good one," Welsh said, "but they're loaded with big league talent."

Lyles, a team tri-captain, says none of his teammates doubts their chances against Clemson, but they are all susceptible to awkward periods of bracing for anything that may occur in the future. Such pessimism has made a long run in the Wahoo blood, which has only recently been cleansed. He spoke for the team when he said:

"Already, I've heard a lot of players say that if we lost to Clemson, we should be able to bounce back. I say the same thing, mainly because they're a nationally ranked team. But that kind of reasoning to me is a scapegoat, or an alibi for losing. I don't like to look at things that way, but I do. We all do here. It would be worse if they weren't a very good team and we lost. If you have to lose . . . well, I really hate to even think about it."