Area football fans have been abuzz over the early season, game-winning exploits of University of Maryland wide receiver Gene Thomas.

A lot of them don't know that Thomas came to College Park from a hotbed of football talent, Montgomery College. So as Division I recruiters look for junior college players, they needn't look further than the Rockville campus, where quarterback John Kaleo and wide receiver Tyrone Fitch are putting up impressive numbers.

After academic ineligibility kept Fitch out last season and a broken thumb cost Kaleo the final eight games, both players have returned to become major contributors to the Knights (2-0), who entertain Central Athletic Conference rival Nassau (Long Island, N.Y.) on Saturday.

In two games, sophomore Kaleo, a graduate of Bowie High School, has completed 25 of 44 passes for 292 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. In the 38-7 win over Frostburg State's junior varsity, he was 11 of 15 for 175 yards and four touchdowns in just one half's work.

After missing the opening game against Potomac State because of a sprained ankle, Fitch came back strong against Frostburg, pulling in four passes for 108 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown.

In his ninth season as the Montgomery head coach, Phil Martin sees his multiple-I offense functioning at its best with Kaleo behind center.

"He's a perfect fit," said Martin. "He gives a lot of dimensions that we never had. We've had pure dropback passers that couldn't scramble and John is able to get away. . . . That was very true the last two seasons. We had two guys who just could not get away."

Kaleo was courted by a number of Division I-AA schools but could only receive walk-on status at Alabama after graduating from Bowie in 1988.

"I guess because of my size {6 feet 1}," he said. "You know how the stereotypes are."

But from the moment Martin and his coaching staff saw Kaleo at the Big 33 tryout, no such prejudices entered their minds.

"In our way of thinking, we felt he was the best quarterback on the field even though he was not picked {for the all-star team}," said Martin. "The quickness of his drop, his throwing technique, his quick release. We knew he had the mechanics. . . . We are very lucky to have him here."

Kaleo continued to impress the coaching staff in spring drills and earned the starting job as a freshman. He completed 43 of 87 passes for 597 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions in guiding last year's team to a 2-1 start before getting tackled and falling on his thumb in the fourth game against Hudson Valley.

"I felt like the world came down on me when the doctor told me I couldn't play for the rest of the season," said Kaleo. "It was real frustrating, being a starter, especially as a freshman in college football and with college football being new to me. Also Gene Thomas was setting records and we had a good offensive line. Everything just seemed to be clicking."

Now, his thumb healthy, Kaleo has blended his athletic ability with a new-found familiarity with the Montgomery offense.

"I feel more confident and more experienced," he said. "I know the system here and reading the defense has become natural now. When you first come here and go to a college system, you have to read defenses and it's kind of complicated at first. But you have to pick it up and you have to pick it up quick. I've learned to pick it up and it's become easy."

In doing so, he has earned Martin's trust. "He reads probably better than anyone we have ever had," the coach said. "He's reading as though this was his fourth year in college. . . . He's self-assured and confident but not overconfident. He's confident to the point that he knows that he can get things done."

What every athletic quarterback who has mastered the offense needs is a wide receiver with similar qualities. In Fitch, Kaleo has just that.

"Tyrone runs precise patterns," said Kaleo. "Some receivers round their corners on their patterns. I always know that Tyrone is going to be where he is supposed to be."

While Fitch is the heir apparent to Gene Thomas, he is a receiver of a different mold.

"He's not the speed that Gene is," said Martin. "He makes a lot of intelligent decisions, runs his routes right and gets open. He has shifty hips and he is a great runner once he gets the ball."

Ironically, coming out of Walter Johnson and graduating the same year as Thomas, Fitch was the more heralded of the two receivers, a first-team All-Met kick returner his senior year. They faced each other when Rockville played Walter Johnson.

He started opposite Thomas as a Knights freshman in 1988 and caught 12 passes for 175 yards.

"Gene's a very good player and deserves everything he's got," said Fitch. "I've played with him and I've played against him. Personally, I just try to block his success out of my mind."

Where Fitch and Kaleo go from here is, for now, a good question.