When Lester Lyles was growing up in Northwest Washington, right near Walter Reed Hospital, he never was thrilled with Maryland football. When he left St. Albans High School as an all-Metropolitan, it was no surprise that Maryland called. Lyles wasn't interested.

He also wasn't interested in going to North Carolina, where the coaches told him they wanted him to be "the next Lawrence Taylor," nor was he interested in playing basketball for Wisconsin. So what football school did Lyles choose?

Virginia, where he sat on the bench most of the first two years watching while his teammates lost 19 of 22 games.

When Lyles would come home, he'd hear friends who went to Maryland laugh and ask him, "Why in the world would you want to go to Virginia and play football?"

Now, Lester Lyles can't come home for Thanksgiving. The Cavaliers are 7-1-2, and in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten streak. Their defense is the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 207-pound safety, is largely responsible. His friends who attend Maryland won't be asking many questions this week, not with Virginia playing Maryland Saturday in Charlottesville for the ACC championship.

There probably isn't a college team in the country for whom Lyles couldn't play. Despite his size, Lyles runs the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. When Lyles hits, it hurts. Tuesday, he was named all-ACC for the second straight year. It is likely he will make some all-America teams.

Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said this week, "Lester Lyles is one of the premier players in the country at strong safety."

Frank Spaziani, Virginia's defensive secondary coach, has seen Lyles go from benchwarmer to legitimate professional prospect. "In the first two years he didn't play that much," Spaziani said. "But he's got a lot of athletic ability. I mean extraordinary ability. What's happened is Lester has learned how to practice. He's learned football and learned how to use all that ability."

Various coaches have said that Lyles could probably play eight defensive positions. In high school he played wide receiver, tight end and tackle, then was moved to quarterback for a while when he was spotted throwing 60-yard spirals in practice.

Last year, Lyles' hit on Ethan Horton caused the fumble that gave the Cavaliers the ball and set up the drive for the touchdown that beat North Carolina, at the time one of Virginia's biggest victories.

Lyles is good enough that Welsh can play him at strong safety or free safety. "A lot of times you'd like to have guys have the best technique," Spaziani said. "But guys like Lester, with all that athletic talent, just makes the plays . . . and that's why he's good."

Lyles laughs softly when he hears all the praise. He didn't even start playing anything more than touch football until the ninth grade and spent about as much time at basketball and track.

When Lyles was 11, he was the national age-group champion for the mile run. His time was 5 minutes 3 seconds. "That's the reason I chose football over basketball, especially at only 6-foot-3," he said.

And even now, as he aspires to play professionally, football doesn't consume him.

Lyles is an English major. He reads a play every other day or so. This week, he prepared for quarterback Frank Reich of Maryland and a class on Chaucer at the same time. Shakespeare is required but also is a hobby.

"You can learn so much from Shakespeare about life," Lyles said. "He gives you history, he gives you philosophy, he entertains you. He makes you think. There is so much there that's meaningful and has impact."

Which is exactly what Virginia's coaches, and any man he hits on the field, will tell you about Lester Lyles.