SHREVEPORT, LA., DEC. 13 -- The most popular Maryland player here at the Independence Bowl seems to be wide receiver Barry Johnson, a rather handsome sort who deplaned to a group of squealing girls chanting his name in the type of welcome usually reserved for rock stars.

"But they were only 13-year-old girls, and I think they only liked me because when I got off I was so happy to see anyone there cheering for us that I began screaming right back at them," Johnson said. "Besides, a lot of these guys will have three or four more opportunities to go to bowl games; for me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I want to make the most of the experience."

He has done exactly that throughout his career with the Terrapins. After catching 43 passes for 689 yards during his junior year, the fifth- and third-highest totals, respectively, in school history, he caught another 34 balls for 629 yards in 1990, landing a spot on the first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference squad.

His 106 catches place him second on Maryland's all-time receiving list, just two behind Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof, who played with the 1984-87 Terrapins. He also ranks behind Abdur-Ra'oof in yardage, 1,895 to 1,731, and is third in touchdowns with 11.

It's a rather impressive resume' for a player who has fought the stigma of being too slow throughout his Maryland career.

"I remember we went out and the only freshmen receivers were me and Norris Hanes," Johnson said. "We had to run the 40-yard dash. Norris went first and did his in 4.3 seconds. I just looked at him and thought, 'Oh well, at least I should get a good education because it doesn't look like I'll be playing very much.'

"I've always been 'the slow guy.' I took it personally for a while but then I started using it to my advantage. I've always liked having a cause to fight for and that was one -- now, I enjoy it if people on other teams think that I'm slow."

There's no stigma to having great hands, good moves and a knack of getting open, all of which he has in abundance. Of his 34 receptions this season, 25 resulted in first downs.

"He's as clutch, as much of a big-play receiver as anyone we've ever had here," said Coach Joe Krivak. "He's one of those guys who's not supposed to be big enough or quick enough to make it but he's got those intangibles that enable a guy to go out and prove everyone wrong."

Even if he did beat Hanes in that initial 40-yard dash, Johnson still would have sat due to the formidable talent ahead of him. Abdur-Ra'oof was present, as was tight end Ferrell Edmunds (third on the all-time list) and James Milling.

The latter two are in the NFL. Abdur-Ra'oof's career was derailed because of an Achilles' tendon injury. Working behind them, Johnson became a student of the game, learning the intricacies of his position, as well as the sacrifice it takes to succeed.

"I was lucky enough to come in and be able to watch them," he said. "They busted their butts all the time -- even when they didn't want to -- because that was what it took to be good.

"Athletically, I'm nowhere near the level of those guys but you learn how to have success. People think you have to fit a mold but it's not true. You should be able to play me bump and run because I'm not fast -- I love for people to play me like that because I can use my moves to get away from them.

"You can cover players with a zone; there are holes all through zone defenses. There's always a weakness; you just have to be able to know where to find it."

Now the question is how far will that knowledge take him after Saturday's game. While the Vienna, Va., native says the Independence Bowl is the pinnacle of his career, with a trip to the Japan Bowl all-star game next month the personal icing, the chance to join Edmunds and Milling in the NFL would be "the chance of a lifetime.

"Anyone who ever plays football dreams of that," he said. "I've spent my whole life in athletics and to be able to finish that career professionally would be beyond my dreams. I try not to think about it at times because last year there were about nine guys on the team who were supposed to get drafted but only two did and just one {quarterback Neil O'Donnell to the Steelers} lasted the whole year.

"I want the chance. I don't know what would happen. I could only guarantee that the team that picked me would get a guy who's going to bust his tail trying to make it."