The first real introduction to Al Covington at the University of Maryland came more than two years ago in a spring scrimmage of his freshman year. He stepped in to play safety with the scout team, and those in the stands at Byrd Stadium were about to find out why No. 18 was called "Bam-Bam."

Before Covington had been on the field more than a few plays, Ron Fazio caught a pass and started running down the sideline. Covington, coming from across the field, aimed his helmet like a missile and blasted Fazio with both Bams.

Every person sitting in Byrd Stadium seemed to feel the hit; it was the kind of play that made those watching wonder, "Is there another one like him at home?"

The answer, as it turned out, was yes. Down at George Washington High School in Danville, Va., running the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds -- just like his brother Al -- there was Keeta Covington.

Maryland got him, too. Took him right away from Georgia, Auburn and North Carolina. And now, Al, a junior safety, and Keeta, a sophomore cornerback, have contributed significantly to Maryland's 7-3 season.

And they are delighted this week to have the opportunity of returning home to Virginia to play the Cavaliers for the Atlantic Coast Conference football championship Saturday.

The Covingtons were walking to class earlier this week when Al stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, "Keeta, can you believe this? We're going back home to play for the title?"

And Keeta Covington said yesterday, after Thanksgiving morning practice, "I'm ready to go. I'm more psyched than I was for the North Carolina game (Chapel Hill is an hour from Danville).

"But I was probably too emotional in that game" when he fumbled two punts that allowed Carolina to kick two field goals. "I'm fired up, but this week I'm going to keep a level head."

That the Covingtons even wound up at Maryland was a surprise. Danville is only two hours' drive from the University of Virginia, half that far from North Carolina, and in the recruiting belt of Georgia, Auburn and several other Southeastern Conference schools that have a lot more football tradition than Maryland.

Plus, the Covingtons were athletes in the true sense of the word. When Al wasn't, in his words, "being kinda destructive" and earning the nickname Bam-Bam (after the Flintstones character), he was playing football and running track.

There was reason that Keeta, even though he was three inches shorter at 5 feet 9, would be as good as Al. He had to.

Like all brothers, they fought a lot, over who was faster, who was the best athlete, who was best of anything and everything. "All the time, over the smallest things," Al recalled. "Our mother would nearly have to kill us to separate us. She'd make one of us sleep in one room and one in another."

"But it wasn't the normal big brother-little brother situation," Keeta said. "He might have been a year older, and a lot bigger, but we weren't gonna stop until I got my licks in, even if I had to sneak up from behind."

A lot of schools recognized all that talent and competitiveness.

But Al Covington made up his mind late on the last day of the national signing period. "I stayed up all night wondering what I should do," he said. "I decided Carolina was just too close to home.

"And Virginia, up to that point, never had a winning program. I had one friend who went there from Danville. And they kept switching him around, from wide receiver to quarterback to defensive back. They just gave him the runaround.

"I was looking to be with a team that could contend for the ACC title and, at that time, it didn't seem like that could be Virginia."

Al Covington was sure his brother was going to one of the SEC schools. Keeta had ruled out Penn State "because they told me during the height of my career as a running back that they wanted me to play defensive back."

Then came his visit with Georgia. That didn't work out, either. "I was in Coach Vince Dooley's office during my visit, and he was telling me how they used four receivers. And he said, 'Now remember, with Herschel (Walker), we only throw about 15 to 18 passes per game.'

"So I knew I wouldn't catch that many passes. And running? There was no way. They had Herschel. I had to forget about Georgia; there were just too many maybes.

"That night, something just kept saying to me, 'Maryland, Maryland. Go play with your big brother at Maryland.' But I would stop and think, 'Naaaw, you don't want no Maryland. All these SEC schools want you, and all of these pretty southern belles are down here. You must be crazy.' "

Being with big brother won out. Maryland won out. Keeta Covington is beginning to keep Maryland in good field position with his punt and kickoff returns, and is becoming a tough cornerback. His rolling tackle -- executed just like the coaches teach it -- thwarted Miami's two-point conversion attempt two weeks ago that saved Maryland's historic comeback.

"Keeta's like good wine," said Greg Williams, Maryland's defensive backs' coach. "The squashing of the grapes process is over, and now he's aging."

Al Covington, simply put, has become devastating. Williams points out that Miami and Clemson didn't even bother running pass patterns over the middle.

"He accelerates right through a guy," Williams said. "Al is such an intimidator now. Teams know that if they go over the middle, either Al will get the ball or get them. Right in the snout.

"There are degrees of bravery and fear. Al has no fear."

Keeta Covington says his brother always has hit that way. "Always did go for the knockouts," Keeta said. "After his first hit (in that spring scrimmage), the word got back home: 'Bam's up there at Maryland knocking people out.'

"I've never been much for that," Keeta said, beginning to needle his brother. "I'm the form tackler, the sure tackler in the family. If I get hold of a guy around the ankle and let somebody else wipe him out, then fine."

Al Covington's biggest problem was lowering his head to make those hits. "He would drop his head and get off balance," Williams said. "Sometimes he would time it just right and produce those incredible hits, but sometimes his head would go down and he'd miss. That hasn't happened at all this year."

Al and Keeta Covington don't fight anymore, at least not at school. But Williams notices how they still compete, and how it helps the competitiveness of his secondary.

"When I hand them their grades (game evaluations) every Sunday night they study them real carefully, then they peek over at each other and say, 'What'd you get?' " -- --

Coach Bobby Ross said yesterday he did not have time to think about the University of Missouri asking and gaining the permission of Athletic Director Dick Dull to speak with Ross about Missouri's coaching vacancy. Ross said he was preoccupied with preparing his team for Saturday's ACC championship game at Virginia and wasn't concerning himself with anything else.