By the time Ben Jefferson was a sixth grader, he was 6 feet tall and so heavy he wasn't allowed to play youth football. By seventh grade, he had reached 6-3 and kiddie football was definitely out of the question for someone weighing about 250.

In eighth grade, Jefferson was 6-6 and playing basketball. But he said he was so much larger than those with whom he played, they would make rules trying to force him to shoot only from the outside.

And then in ninth grade -- his freshman year at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High -- it finally happened. Jefferson stopped growing. At 6-9, 308 pounds.

"Nobody would let me play any organized football until I was in eighth grade," Jefferson said. "It was tough seeing my friends come home from practice with their equipment and I couldn't be a part of that. I played only basketball for the longest time, and I'd do a little shot putting during football season. I just didn't like sitting around."

There's certainly no weight limit anymore for Jefferson, a redshirt freshman offensive tackle at the University of Maryland. Jefferson still weighs slightly more than 300 pounds. Because a regular scale does not register more than 300 pounds, Jefferson weighs himself on the meat scale in the cafeteria once a week. He was featured in Sports Illustrated's preseason football issue as one of the biggest players in college football.

And he hasn't time to sit around anymore. The coaches and players at Maryland believe that, before long, Jefferson will be a very good lineman. "He could possibly be the best who's ever come through here," guard Lenny Lynch, one of Jefferson's mentors, said.

Right now, Jefferson is waiting to play. "If it had been necessary, I could have used him Saturday against Penn State," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said. "But that would have been throwing him in just a bit too soon. I feel it would have been rushing him a little bit, putting him against a line as good as Penn State. But he's really coming along. We expect him to be a good one."

Jefferson has come along relatively quickly, considering his late entry into organized football and considering how much time he spent making sure he wasn't aggressive for fear of hurting someone.

Jefferson comes by his size naturally. He said his mother is about 6 feet and his father about 6-2. "The thing about growing up big, for me," he said, "is that I feel it made me grow up not being as aggressive as I would have been. I was always holding back. And it becomes hard, later, to just turn it on as a football player. I didn't think about it that way when I was younger, but you can see now, where it did have an effect. You've got to hit hard or you'll hurt yourself."

Lynch said, "Ben doesn't come off the ball as hard as he will, but I don't know if all that's because of him growing up so big and holding back. A lot of it is that he's still young. He's got to work on the weights a little bit more. He was always the biggest and strongest growing up that size. Now, he's facing guys who have worked out with weights and become stronger than he is, if they're not as big. But he'll work hard, he's a great guy."

Jefferson said he feels his play coming along. "I still do a lot of thinking," he said. "It takes a while to really get this offense down. I know it comes with time. I know I feel a lot more comfortable with some things now than I did last year. But I still say to myself sometimes, 'Why didn't you know that already?' "

It's that attitude that Ross and offensive line coach Ralph Friedgen like, and he could get some playing time in the next week or so. Maybe he's what Maryland will need this week in Foxboro, Mass., when Boston College trots out 6-2, 250-pound nose guard Mike Ruth, known for his strength.

But there is plenty of time ahead for Jefferson to have mammoth confrontations. Right now, the other offensive linemen still call Jefferson "Gentle Ben." Jefferson may be gentle, but don't accuse of him being gullible. When a call came to his home this summer from someone who identified himself as a "Sports Illustrated photographer," Jefferson suspected it was a prank call from Lynch, who has pulled a few practical jokes on Jefferson.

Jefferson said he wasn't having anything to do with photos until the session was validated by someone at the university, which it was. Lynch said, with eyebrow raised, "Naw, I wouldn't do that."

Jefferson is learning.