Until Paul Palmer came along, the most famous running back in the history of Temple University was somebody named William Cosby -- a funny fellow whose ability to turn the corner has long since been surpassed by his ability to turn a Nielsen rating.

But that was before Temple Coach Bruce Arians managed to recruit a 5-foot-9, 160-pound mini-tailback out of Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., three years ago. And that was before that tailback worked his way from freshman kick returner to Temple's leading rusher, scorer and receiver in each of his first two seasons.

And that was before he went out as a junior and blew away Temple's records for most yards rushing in a game (281), season (1,373) and career (2,886).

Palmer is eight games into his junior season, and only Auburn's Bo Jackson is averaging more yards rushing. Palmer has gained 168.4 yards rushing per game, Jackson 184.2. Palmer is first in all-purpose yards per game with 193.7; Napoleon McCallum of Navy is second (192.9).

"It's hard to believe," said Palmer. "Going into my senior year in high school, I had trouble thinking about me even playing college football at all. And now, a few years later, I'm being mentioned for the greatest award in college football (the Heisman Trophy). It's really hard to believe.

"But I'm trying to make myself believe."

As tailback factories go, Temple is not exactly Southern Cal. And it's not as if Palmer was particularly unnoticed in high school, either. He rushed for 1,920 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Churchill.

And by year's end, he was all-Metropolitan, even all-America on some lists. But he wasn't a hot college item. Part of the reason for that was grades. But most of it came down to the most widespread bias in football: discrimination by size.

"Everybody's out there looking for Herschel Walker," said Arians, who used to coach running backs for Bear Bryant at Alabama. "Everybody wants to win national championships the easy way. Well, there's not that many Bo Jacksons, and there's not that many Herschel Walkers. But there are a lot of Paul Palmers."

"I never really felt I was small until my senior year in high school," Palmer said. "But then I can remember my high school coach calling me in and saying, 'Hey, this scout's coming in from so-and-so, so wear a thick sweater and wear some boots with heels on them.' "

Still, the big schools backed off, including the one Palmer had wanted to play for all his life -- Maryland. Palmer wasn't happy about that. But he told himself, "I'll just try and make it their loss, not mine."

Meanwhile, Arians had just left Alabama to try to lead Temple toward the big time. "We sent for film of Paul," Arians recalled. "We watched one reel and said, 'Hey, he's little, but he's a player.' "

Other schools were worrying about whether he could take the pounding or make the grades. But Arians invited Palmer for a visit and told him: "You make the commitment that you're going to go to school, and I'll make the commitment to you that we'll give you a scholarship."

At the time, even Arians wasn't sure Palmer had the strength to make it. But now, three years and 20 pounds later, he finds himself handing the ball to Palmer 30 times a game.

"I didn't really want him to carry this much," Arians said. "I didn't think we should subject him to that. But then (freshman tailback) Todd McNair got hurt. And we got into a lot of close ball games. And I kept thinking that the one play Paul might be out of the game, he might take it all the way. So I left him in there."

Palmer is the only player this year to rush for more than 200 yards (206) against Penn State. He followed that with 155 against Brigham Young, 184 against East Carolina and a school-record 281 in a little more than a half against William and Mary.

Last Saturday, he gained 126 yards against a Syracuse team that had only been allowing an average of 106 rushing yards per team. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 straight games dating back to last season. He has averaged close to six yards per carry this season. He is the central offensive figure for a Temple team that is a few points away from being 7-1 instead of 4-4.

He has carried as many as 39 times per game. And he still has yet to miss a down in his college career. He is that tough. And he is that good.

"He could play anywhere," said Temple backfield coach Spencer Prescott. "By now there shouldn't be any doubt in anybody's mind -- especially the people who have played against him.

"Going into the season, I told him there were going to be a lot of people getting a lot of publicity this year who didn't necessarily have to earn it because they were at Penn State or Boston College or someplace like that. I said, 'You're the best running back in the East. But you're going to have to go out and prove it every week.' "

Clearly, he has done that. And that has made a 76-year-old woman back in Potomac very proud. She is Frances Palmer, his great-grandmother. She raised Paul, his brother Mark and his sister Tonya from the time Paul was 3. And she's happy now that she made a decision 11 years ago to let Palmer play football.

"She didn't want me to play football when I was a kid, so I used to have to sneak to participate," Palmer said. "I had to leave my pads at a friend's house, go pick them up to practice and then come back and pretend I'd just been around the neighborhood playing.

"I know she was just afraid of me getting hurt. And she also didn't understand the game at all. But finally, my coach came to talk to her and some people from the neighborhood came to talk to her. And they just told her I was a pretty good little player and that they'd like to have me on the team.

"So then she decided that football really wasn't too bad. At least then she knew where I was if somebody came looking for me."

And 11 years later, she still does. She just has to check that list of the nation's leading running backs.