HOUSTON -- The white cowboy hat and two pairs of boots in his dorm room at Cougar Place on the University of Houston campus gave away David Klingler's true avocation. Houston's urban cowboy quarterback, who weekly drives Southwest Conference defenses to distraction, would be just as happy riding a horse somewhere in the country.

"I'm not very fond of the city," he said. "I think I'd like to be a ranch hand, but that's probably a lot of work. I don't see myself working behind a desk. It makes me wonder why I'm a business major."

If you think that means Klingler grew up in a small town in West Texas with a dirt road for a Main Street, you're wrong. He attended Stratford High School in Houston, the same place that sent Craig James running to Southern Methodist, the Washington Federals and New England Patriots.

Klingler, a fourth-year junior, has helped third-ranked Houston (8-0) become the nation's only undefeated, untied Division I-A school. Houston's wild and woolly run-and-shoot offense has helped make Klingler the nation's leader in total offense with 446 yards a game. He threw seven touchdown passes in each of the last two games.

"It doesn't seem like that's me," he says, when he sees the statistics. "It's like it's somebody else out there."

Klingler, a reluctant hero who constantly praises his receivers, passed himself into the hunt for the Heisman Trophy, the award his predecessor, Andre Ware, captured last year. He did it by mastering the complex offense designed by Coach John Jenkins.

"What David's got in his corner to be a hands-down winner of the Heisman Trophy is his record," said Jenkins, in his first year as head coach after three seasons as offensive coordinator for Jack Pardee. "David is 8-0 and Andre was 6-2."

Houston lost to Texas A&M, 17-13, and to Arkansas, 45-39, last year. The comparisons with Ware began before Klingler ever started a game. Jenkins initiated the talk. Klingler enjoyed it.

"How can you complain getting compared to Andre Ware?" he said. "He did some pretty great things."

After eight games, Klingler compares favorably with the Detroit Lions rookie. Klingler is 270 of 463, with 3,553 yards, 34 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Ware was 263 of 417 for 3,413 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Jenkins graded Klingler at 85 percent for last week's 563-yard passing effort in a 56-35 victory over Texas Christian. Ware achieved his highest grade from Jenkins -- 87 percent -- last year against Nevada-Las Vegas. Two pro quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Todd Dillon, scored 86 percent with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL when Jenkins served as an assistant coach.

"Klingler's overall awareness of the game is better than any player I've ever coached," said Jenkins. "He illustrated {last Saturday} what a tremendous pro football player he'll be."

Because he is 6 foot 3, those out of the know say he is immobile. False. He rushed for 63 yards on seven carries last week, high jumped 6-10 in high school and played basketball well enough to be recruited by Pittsburgh. He played enough as Ware's backup last year to complete 68 of 114 passes for 865 yards, eight touchdowns and only one interception. His passing efficiency ranks second, to Ware, in the Southwest Conference.

With Houston barred by the NCAA from live television last year, Ware won the Heisman with his personality as much as his numbers. Houston's sports information office made sure he returned every phone call possible.

"Andre was excellent on the phone," said Ted Nance, Houston's sports information director. "David has the same qualities. {But} it's almost impossible to get him to take credit for anything."

Said Jenkins: "The only thing he'll take credit for is an interception."

Klingler overwhelmed Arkansas for 457 yards in a 62-28 triumph two weeks ago. "I can't believe the three interceptions in one game," he said later. "That's ridiculous. I look more at that than the seven touchdowns. The touchdowns should be there.

"That's not my job to go out and try to win the Heisman. It's too big for me to consider."

Outwardly, Klingler and Ware appear similar, and were good friends last year. Ware often borrowed Klingler's notes from a class he missed while traversing the country collecting awards. He hid in Klingler's room occasionally to escape the telephone.

Deep inside the quarterbacks differed. "Andre really loved to play football," said Klingler. "I like football, but it's not my favorite thing. My friends say, 'Hey, did you see that game on TV?' No. I watch football from 7 in the morning until 7 at night. I don't want to watch it on my free time."

A 1988 incident altered Klingler's perspective on the sport and life. Pardee, the former Redskins coach and linebacker, used Monday practices to give his reserves a chance to show their stuff. Klingler, an option quarterback in high school, collided head first with safety Kenny Perry in practice. Perry knocked him out and the quarterback spent the night in the hospital.

"I don't remember much," he said. "From what I've been told I scrambled out of the pocket and down the sidelines. I tried to take on Kenny Perry. He got me in the temple. That was it. Lights out."

It marked the low point of his football career. The following spring, through the initiative of his girlfriend, Klingler became a born-again Christian. Now he spends Monday evenings participating in the Young Life program, speaking to kids from his high school.

"It keeps you humble," he said. "When I became a Christian, everything fell into place for me. Once I stopped worrying about football, things started to work out. I went to high school to play football and basketball and run track. I got out of bed and couldn't wait for practice. Things have changed."