The contract was on the table in front of him, the San Francisco Giants' scout sitting by his side. All that was left was one sweep of the pen and Gene Thomas would be off to Pocatello, Idaho, or Everett, Wash., to man center field for one of the franchise's lower-level minor league teams.

"I was ready to sign," said Thomas, the Giants' 20th-round pick in the 1989 amateur draft. "I talked to my parents just before that and we decided it would be in my best interest to go to school."

Things have changed since that summer day in 1989, when he was a standout college baseball player and unproven football player at Montgomery-Rockville. One year later, Thomas has moved a few miles east to the University of Maryland, and is presently viewed as a future football star.

"Right now, I'm loving football," said the 6-foot, 180-pound Thomas, a wide receiver who attracted substantial Division I attention last season when he became a second-team all-JuCo selection while catching 58 passes for 1,036 yards and 20 touchdowns for the 7-3 Knights.

With the graduation of David Carr and Dean Green, Thomas is expected to contend with Norris Hanes and Richie Harris for the starting receiver spot opposite senior Barry Johnson. So far, he has shown the ability to make the comfortable move from junior college to Division I.

"He's got the necessary skills to be a wide receiver on this level," Maryland Coach Joe Krivak said. "He can run, he can catch and he's got a good temperament."

According to Maryland receivers coach Rod Sharpless, Thomas's most impressive trait may be his post-catch elusiveness.

"The kid's unbelievable," Sharpless said. "He's the type of receiver who knows what to do once he's caught the ball. Most kids can catch the ball, but the difference between being a great receiver and a good receiver is knowing what to do once you've caught the ball."

Thomas said, "Ever since I got to Rockville, I did pretty well after the catch. I'm just not one to get hit. I'm not worried about getting hit, but if I can avoid it . . . "

Thomas was recruited by Maryland out of Rockville High School, but grades dictated that he attend junior college. After a dislocated collarbone forced him to miss most of his freshman football season, he considered quitting the sport. His success at baseball -- he had a strong freshman year and went on to bat .338 with 38 stolen bases as a sophomore -- would have made that decision easier to handle. But after hearing that coaches still were interested in his football skills, he decided to play.

The result was what he called a "dream season," in which he averaged two touchdowns per game despite frequent double and triple coverage.

"That was kind of hard to foresee, because 20 touchdowns for a wide receiver is incredible at any level," said Montgomery-Rockville Coach Phil Martin. "He makes some of the most incredible catches with guys on him. He was all our offense."

With a number of Division I schools clamoring for his services, Thomas chose Maryland over James Madison because of its proximity to home.

"It's an easy thing here, mainly because my mom is sick and I wanted to stay close to home and be with her," said Thomas, who also considered Pittsburgh, UCLA and Cincinnati. "Plus, it gives them a chance to come to the games."

With the Terrapins' season opener against Virginia Tech 10 days away, Thomas's concern is learning Maryland's pass-oriented offense, something Sharpless says has not been a problem.

"You're talking about a little more mature individual, compared to a true freshman," Sharpless said. "He has played on the collegiate level . . . It's a blessing to have him step right into this situation."

"We had a pro-set offense {at Montgomery}," said Thomas, who turned 20 Saturday and has two years of eligibility left. "I've known stuff from there and brought it back here . . . I've got the gist of the stuff, but not to the point where it's final."

Whatever Thomas does this football season, he will not be running pass routes in the spring. Instead, he will be running the base paths for Tom Bradley's baseball team. But that does not bother Krivak.

"You've got to weigh each individual situation," Krivak said. "If a kid is a quality player in another sport and can be a starter, that's fine."

As far as his post-Maryland career is concerned, Thomas says he loves both sports, but that he has been told that baseball provides a longer and more financially rewarding career. But that has not been his experience so far. In fact, he laughs at the description of the Giants' offer in Maryland's football media guide as "a large signing bonus."

"It wasn't that large," he said.