Like most any rookie, even one with 4.4 speed who seems to have no fear of cutting across the middle to catch a pass, Gary Clark was never sure he would make it in the National Football League.

That sounds silly now, after his prime-time, 10-yard touchdown catch from Joe Theismann against St. Louis Oct. 7, or the high-wire, goal-line reception the other day against Detroit in his first start.

But, back in the summer, aware of the fickle ways of pro football, Clark decided upon a Plan B, if the Washington Redskins didn't want him:

He would finish his last two classes at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., to complete his degree requirements and teach school.

"You know how it is as a rookie in camp," he said yesterday. "You never know what you think."

So Clark bought a town house in Harrisonburg, set in the Shenandoah Valley, well south of the Washington area. He moved in three weeks ago, even though he made the team, and now drives 1 1/2 hours every morning to Redskin Park in what may be one of the longest daily commutes by a professional athlete.

"All the guys think I'm crazy," Clark said. "But as long as the weather's good, I'll do it, and then maybe I'll get a place up there. I'm never late. And when I want, I stay at the (Dulles) Marriott overnight."

Clark, 23, has another reason for living so incredibly far from his job.

"He's a country person," said his brother and financial adviser, Michael Clark, who lives even farther from the bright lights in the family home town of Dublin, Va.

"Yeah, I guess I am," answered Gary Clark. "I guess you could say I'm a momma's boy. I always worry about my family. I like being near my hometown. There's nothing in it but great people."

Some day, he says, he will make it to Georgetown for an evening, just to see what this Washington thing is. "I don't like the city life," he said, "but I'll try anything once."

Gary Clark's dreams never carried him too far from home, and neither has reality.

This season began with Clark backing up starter Calvin Muhammad, yet things changed quickly.

The curious decline of Muhammad -- he has only seven catches for 95 yards in six games and hasn't caught a pass in three of the last four games -- has left some at Redskin Park puzzled, wondering what is wrong.

But it also has given them the opportunity to test Clark in his place.

Clark started for the first time against Detroit Sunday and caught seven passes for 58 yards, including setting up John Riggins' first touchdown, a one-yard run.

He has become the team's third-leading receiver behind Art Monk (33 receptions for 290 yards) and Clint Didier (17 for 196) with 16 receptions for 176 yards. He has become enough of a threat to keep defenses honest on Monk. He also has made the Redskins' longest catch of the season, albeit an insignificant 34-yarder in the third quarter of the loss to Chicago.

To which soft-spoken Clark might say, "Who, me?"

"It caught me by surprise when they told me I was starting last week, and I don't even know what will happen this week or next," he said. "I'm just a role player. I do what they say."

There doesn't seem to be any doubt in Coach Joe Gibbs' mind that Clark is his starter.

"Gary's play in this game was excellent," he said Monday. "He's a fighter . . . He's down there in the thick of things. There was no question he was going to get hit (on the 18-yard reception to the one in the second quarter) . . . I think he really played well."

Said Clark of the reception that ended as he tumbled to the ground in the arms of Lions cornerback Bruce McNorton: "Mr. (Jack Kent) Cooke pays me to do that. The fans pay to see that."

The Redskins still are waiting to see the effect Clark's speed will have on a football game. That was Muhammad's forte last year, and it might become Clark's if he continues to play more and Muhammad plays less.

The 34-yard catch against Chicago was a streak pattern that worked well, Clark said, but he hasn't beaten a cornerback deep yet.

Then again, that's not the Redskins' game. Possession passing is, and Clark, who is just 5 feet 9, has looked good at it.

When he arrived here in May after 1 1/2 seasons in the U.S. Football League with the Jacksonville Bulls, Clark was seen as the fourth wideout behind Monk, Muhammad and Charlie Brown (traded in August to Atlanta), and the possible heir-apparent to Mike Nelms on punt returns.

How things have changed. Clark now is No. 2 at wide receiver, and, while he has tried returning punts, the Redskins later signed Ken Jenkins for that and are happy with him, too.

"I hope they feel confident in me," Clark said. "I want to stay here. I hope I get to."

Gibbs says he doesn't pay much attention to personal milestones, but he did find one interesting: the Redskins' 24-3 victory over Detroit Sunday was his 50th victory as a head coach just six weeks into his fifth season, his 71st game, counting the playoffs.

Paul Brown won his 50th in his 63rd game; Seattle's Chuck Knox in his 68th; Gibbs and Miami's Don Shula in their 71st; former Redskins coach George Allen in his 72nd; and the Los Angeles Raiders' Tom Flores in his 76th.

"And I was almost fired two weeks ago by 100 people," Gibbs said, laughing.