Barry Word likes an occasional gin and tonic almost as much as he does dressing up and taking a date to dinner. Luckily, this admittedly expensive behavior is accompanied by a talent for running that causes even Virginia Coach George Welsh to look indulgent when he says Word is "rather carefree."

Word smiles as innocently as he can when he hears of Welsh's comment. "Now I wonder what he means by that," he says. "He probably means I just like to do what I feel like doing."

Word, man about town, urbane wit and restless seeker of something cool with a twist, is well on his way to becoming one of the more dashing figures in Virginia football history. A typical autumn Saturday for Word is 100 yards, a couple of swift, long gains and an argument with friend and running mate Howard Petty over who has the best wardrobe. Then it's on to a quiet meeting place for cocktails, darling, and don't bruise the gin.

The senior tailback has rushed for 894 yards this season and may become the fourth 1,000-yard rusher ever for the Cavaliers. And just so he doesn't appear decadent, it should be noted that he is a literature major who can read Chaucer in old English, although he doesn't like it.

"What I like are the old works -- that no one knows who wrote," he said. "You sit there in class and try to figure out who wrote it and why. I like to figure he wrote it because he felt like it."

He also is the son of a man who lost his legs and part of a hand in an accident before Word was born. All of Thomas Word's five sons are athletes and two others, Kenny and Corwin, also played football at Virginia.

"It taught me if he could make it," Word said, "my potential was probably unlimited."

His potential, however, had not been realized until this season. He just became a starter three games ago, most of his yardage being gained while playing behind Petty. It was Petty who got most of the attention last year, rushing for 811 yards while Word gained a journeymanlike 603. The opposite has happened this year: Petty suffering minor injuries and slowing somewhat, gaining 335 yards, and Word enjoying success that a season ago seemed improbable.

"I didn't expect this kind of year from him," said offensive tackle Jim Dombrowski. "He's been pretty consistent for two years, and I expected the same this year. Now all of a sudden he's great."

Great rushers do not often spring forth in their senior years. But according to most at Virginia, Word has just begun to develop into the runner he should be with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash. His main problems in the past were inexperience and a lack of field vision. Until recently, he showed few signs of his potential, other than his speed and some leaping ability.

"Maybe it just took him a couple of years," Welsh said. "He's seeing things better and making the cuts a little quicker. It's just that fraction of a difference that means 10 or 12 yards as opposed to four or five. He always ran in there tough. Maybe he's just a little smarter. He's understanding everything a little better . . . He has the running instincts now. I don't think he had them a couple of years ago. It wasn't natural."

If Word continues on his pace, his rushing totals could take on some national significance, for his 894 yards are comparable to some preseason Heisman Trophy candidates. Navy's Napoleon McCallum has gained 910 yards on 197 carries and Notre Dame's Allen Pinkett has gained 796 yards on 181 carries. Word has carried significantly fewer times, with only 146 attempts. His rushing average per attempt is a startling 6.1 yards.

"I knew I could do something like this," he said. "It was a just a question of getting the chance. The more I carry the ball, the more I know what I'm doing."

While Word probably will not have any impact on the Heisman voting, his running has been a highly regarded accomplishment at Virginia, which has turned out just eight all-Americas and has only one recognizable star this season in Dombrowski. You have to go back to Tommy Vigorito in 1979 to find a runner who gained 1,000 yards in a season. With three games remaining, Word seems certain to pass the 1,000 mark. The Cavaliers play at North Carolina State Saturday.

Word's rushing totals are in part due to the presence of Dombrowski, the fifth-year senior who formally was nominated last weekend for the Lombardi Award. But Dombrowski claims Word's newfound breakaway talent has been the main factor.

"He's always had ability," Dombrowski said. "He just had to learn to run at different speeds. Even if you don't get a very good block on, he still takes advantage of it. Get him through the line of scrimmage and his ability takes over."