Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, Notre Dame's flashy kick returner, wide receiver and running back, announced yesterday he would forgo his senior season to enter the National Football League draft.

Although he could be the top pick in the draft -- a position several pro personnel men yesterday said was too early to determine -- Ismail said at a news conference in South Bend, Ind., his decision to leave college was based more on the death of teammate Chris Zorich's mother than the big bucks available for top draft picks.

Zorich, a star defensive lineman, returned to his Chicago home the day after Notre Dame lost the Orange Bowl to Colorado, 10-9, to find the body of his 59-year-old diabetic mother, who apparently had died after watching the game on television.

The death of Zorich's mother "is something that made me realize that things in life don't always happen the way you want them to," Ismail said. "Honestly and truly, earlier in the season, when people asked me if I was going to the NFL, I had no aspirations whatsoever in doing so. However, when it got to the point his mother passed away, it was like a reality check for me.

"I wanted to do something for my mother and my family. I was thinking about waiting, but you never know what's going to happen. The {possible NFL} salary cap and everything else aside, hey, what if the people you want to do something for aren't there next year? It really crushed me. . . . And while the opportunity is there for me to help my family out, I knew it was an advantage I had to take."

Ismail is the 12th undergraduate to apply for the draft, and the third wide receiver, following Virginia's Herman Moore and Syracuse's Rob Carpenter. Under NFL rules instituted last year, the deadline is

Feb. 1.

Ismail was a two-time all-American and the runner-up for the 1990 Heisman Trophy. During his career he gained 4,187 all-purpose yards and scored 15 touchdowns -- four receiving, five rushing, five returning kickoffs and one returning punts. His touchdowns averaged 61 yards, with the longest a 94-yard kickoff return last season against Miami.

The New England Patriots have the first selection in the NFL draft, by virtue of a 1-15 record. Boston area newspapers have written numerous stories about the Patriots likely taking Ismail, but Sam Jankovich, the Patriots' new director of football operations, was noncommittal yesterday.

"Any time a quality player and person like Rocket Ismail enters the draft, it surely adds to the value of the Patriots and other NFL teams," Jankovich said in a statement. "It surely provides the Patriots and others many different options. The Patriots, like other NFL teams, are in an evaulation process at this particular time and it is far too early to make decisions."

Said New York Jets General Manager Dick Steinberg: "He's a first-round pick. But we need to get a lot more information. . . . Where is the guy going to play? Is he a running back? Is he a wide receiver? He hasn't taken a lot of snaps at either position.

"I'm not trying to be evasive. I'm trying to be truthful. . . . When you're talking this kind of money, nobody in the league is going to make a snap decision."

Ismail said he figures he will be a wide receiver but would play wherever his new coach wants. He also said he had no preference which team selects him. "Anybody who takes me I'll be happy to play for them," he said. "No matter where I go I'm going to give all I have."

Ismail said he is 30 hours short of his degree at Notre Dame and plans to return in future offseasons to obtain it, a promise he said he made to his mother in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He said he will remain enrolled at Notre Dame this semester and plans to run track, an activity previously preempted by spring football practice.

NFL DRAFT EARLY ENTRIES

Player....................Pos.........Yr................College

Randy Baldwin.............RB..........Jr................Mississippi

Jesse Campbell............S...........Jr................N.C. State

Rob Carpenter.............WR..........Jr................Syracuse

Dexter Davis..............DB..........Jr................Clemson

Chris Gardocki............K...........Jr................Clemson

Rocket Ismail.............WR..........Jr................Notre Dame

Ed King...................G...........Jr................Auburn

Herman Moore..............WR..........Jr................Virginia

Jon Vaughn................RB..........So................Michigan

Sammy Walker..............CB..........Jr................Texas Tech

Chuck Webb................RB..........So................Tennessee

Robert Wilson.............RB..........Jr................Texas A&M