ANAHEIM, CALIF., AUG. 30 -- Catches now and classes later. That appears to be the immediate future of Derrick Faison, who has returned to Washington not for his last semester at Howard University, but as a student of football with the Los Angeles Rams.

Though he has yet to secure a roster spot, Faison is mentioned and written about here as the front-runner in the race to be the team's No. 4 receiver, a backup for the potent trio of Henry Ellard, Flipper Anderson and Aaron Cox. After Friday night's preseason finale against the Redskins and Faison's long-awaited reunion with family and friends, the rookie free agent and Lake City, S.C., native will learn Monday if he has made the team.

Even if he doesn't, his summer has been special. With Ellard, Anderson and Cox all nursing hamstring injuries, Faison has been the focus of the Los Angeles passing game during the preseason. Things have gone so well for Faison -- whose two touchdown receptions keyed the Rams' 27-7 victory over Phoenix last week -- that the lanky wide receiver already has been christened with a nickname.

"I was real clumsy with the routes at first, and they started calling me 'Big Bird,' " Faison said. "Then it kind of changed when I started learning the routes and leaping over defenders in practice and making one-handed catches. Now that I'm making the plays they just call me 'Bird.' It's real nice."

There was a time Faison wasn't sure if he'd be called by anybody. Forced to sit out the 1989 football season at Howard because of the school's misinterpretation of his eligibility, Faison (6 feet 4, 200 pounds) instead competed in basketball and track with the hope that by staying in shape, he'd be picked up by a football team lacking depth at wide receiver.

Los Angeles certainly didn't have that problem when it signed Faison, now 23, in June. However, that was before hamstring strains became the vogue at Rams Park. Even ninth-round draft pick Tony Lomack, one of Faison's two competitors for the No. 4 spot, pulled that muscle, joining Ellard, Cox and Anderson (who have combined for one reception in three games) on the unavailable list for the Washington game.

Meanwhile, Faison continues to play impressively. Against Phoenix he beat his man deep in the first quarter but couldn't hold on to the ball when Jim Everett threw the pass short. Later in that drive, Faison made an 11-yard reception despite his defender being called for pass interference.

His first touchdown against the Cardinals, a 26-yard catch in the third quarter, came with a defender grabbing his face mask. In the fourth, Faison went over the middle to snare a 23-yard scoring pass from Chuck Long.

While he still is adapting to the complexities of the Rams offense, Faison seems to be learning what he is taught. But with Lomack and Tim Stallworth, cousin of former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth, also playing well, Faison hasn't been guaranteed anything, even with eight catches and 156 yards in three games.

Faison's preseason numbers are a continuation of the success he had at run-oriented Howard, where he made 18 receptions (seven for touchdowns) and averaged more than 30 yards per catch in 1988.

"Right now, I'm just taking everything in stride, still keeping my head on level," Faison said. "Because even though I played {well} Saturday, I still haven't made the team yet. It's just a situation where I've been very fortunate for right now.

"I'm getting a lot better. At first I was messing up a lot of plays and stumbling on a lot of routes."

Rams Coach John Robinson said after the Phoenix game: "Obviously Faison is capable of big plays. He's got some stuff that's unusual. . . . We've got some tough decisions to make."

If the injuries continue -- Stallworth suffered a bruised right toe against the Cardinals but should play against the Redskins -- Faison might be the only healthy wide receiver available to Robinson.

"It's been really fun, but basically I keep everything in perspective," said Faison, only three classes from a business management degree at Howard. "I know the situation is still tight. The competition is fierce because Lomack and Stallworth are two great receivers. I'm just fortunate right now that Coach Robinson is giving me a chance. . . . If things don't work out, I'll just be happy that I got the opportunity."

Rams Notes: Like Faison, veteran linebacker Mike Wilcher, who grew up only a few blocks from RFK Stadium and was an All-Met selection at Eastern High, is making a homecoming Friday night.

"We'd walk down there, talk to the players to try to get the guys to give us some tickets, and they'd give us chin straps and wristbands and that kind of stuff," said Wilcher, 30, a Temple Hills, Md., resident during the offseason. "Now, to be able to be playing and going into that stadium, it always brings back those memories."

Wilcher, who has received treatment this week for a slightly strained leg muscle, has scored only one touchdown in his eight-year career: a 35-yard return of a Doug Williams fumble in the Rams' Monday night victory over the Redskins at RFK in 1987.