Two Saturdays, two last-minute touchdown receptions exceeding 50 yards, two Maryland victories. Extrapolate Gene Thomas's numbers to a full season, and he just might approach his accomplishments of a year ago at Montgomery College in Rockville. With a hint of hyperbole, his high school coach calls the Terrapins junior "the best wide receiver I've ever seen." His junior college coach wouldn't call that exaggeration.

Thomas, who spent two years at Montgomery-Rockville shoring up his academic record before enrolling at Maryland, has emerged as the surprise star on the first Terrapins team to open the season 2-0 since 1986.

Last Saturday, running a post pattern on third and 10 with 2:27 remaining, Thomas located a wide seam in the defense, hauled in a pass from senior quarterback Scott Zolak and raced 59 yards down the middle of the field to clinch Maryland's 14-10 victory over West Virginia.

A week earlier Zolak and Thomas hooked up for a 51-yard score -- on a nearly identical play -- with 1:01 left against Virginia Tech, giving the Terps the 21-13 victory at home over the Hokies.

To those who watched Thomas at Rockville High School and Montgomery-Rockville, there was no disbelief as the fleet receiver raced toward the end zone for those winning scores.

"He absolutely deserves to be where he is now," Knights sophomore receiver Gary Kinard said. "I backed up Gene last year, but he was Mr. It."

"He was all-world when he was here," Rockville Coach Tom Manuel said. "He could always catch it in a crowd. If he could touch it, then he could hold onto it."

"He always wanted the ball," Montgomery receivers coach Mike Hohensee said. "He loved to be put on the spot in a crucial situation. That's the sign of a great receiver."

Thomas, a proficient baseball player who was drafted in the 20th round of the 1989 amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants, played a good deal at quarterback during his Rockville High days. He also batted a record .519 his senior year.

Thomas also performed some last-minute heroics at Rockville, catching a 50-yard touchdown pass to defeat Wheaton, 13-7, his senior year. Rockville was 6-4 and Montgomery County Division II champions that season.

"He was the fastest kid we ever had here, running a 4.5 {in the 40-yard dash}," said Manuel, the Rockville coach since 1978. "He ran about 100 yards on that play against Wheaton. If he goes the football route, he'll be playing on Sundays."

That's Sunday, as in the National Football League.

"Gene has the right mentality for the pros," Hohensee said. "He has super hands and the ability to concentrate on the ball when he's in a crowd. What might hold him back, though, is the fact that he started playing receiver late in his career. But he's certainly learned quick."

Hohensee knows more than a little about the capability to succeed in the pros. The current coach of the Washington Commandos of the Arena Football League, Hohensee played quarterback for the Chicago Bears' replacement team during the 1987 strike and for the USFL's Washington Federals. He has been the Knights' receivers coach for five years.

Montgomery-Rockville's pro-set offense helped speed the learning process, as did Coach Phil Martin's passing-prolific offensive alignments. Last season Thomas had 58 receptions for 1,036 yards and 20 touchdowns for the 7-3 Knights.

That's right, 20 touchdowns. In 10 games.

"All around, he was the man here last year," Knights receiver Tyrone Fitch said. Fitch has become an authority of sorts on Thomas, playing with him at Montgomery-Rockville and against him when he attended Walter Johnson High School. "No surprise that he's doing so well now."

"I have never, ever seen that on any level," Martin said of Thomas's 20 touchdowns, which earned the receiver second team all-JuCo national honors in 1989. "I can see it with a running back who comes in to punch it in from the 1. But for a receiver, that's unbelievable."

What's more impressive about Thomas's scoring success in 1989 {he missed all but two games of his freshman season with a broken collarbone} was that it was achieved with three different quarterbacks.

"He always runs well with the ball and can turn on a dime," said John Kaleo, who quarterbacked the Knights in 1989 until breaking his thumb in the season's fourth week. "He can get a secondary confused and frustrated."

Martin and Hohensee agree that what delighted them most about coaching Thomas was his constant desire to improve his ability.

"I want my players to be gentlemen first, then succeed in academics and then be good football players," Martin said. "Gene was brilliant at all three."

Hohensee concurred: "He was the type of player that makes coaching worth it."