Olandis Gary hadn't even established himself as a starter after two seasons in Marshall University's Division I-AA football program when he packed his bags for the University of Georgia and the competitive demands of both a Division I-A program and the Southeastern Conference.

Gary, who played at Riverdale Baptist (class of 1993) and still holds the Maryland private school rushing record (5,375 yards), moved to Georgia when his head coach at Marshall, Jim Donnan, accepted the Bulldogs job. But Gary said incoming Marshall coach Bob Pruett warned him he was making a mistake transferring to Division I.

"He gave me a million and one reasons why I couldn't play in the SEC," said Gary, who backed up running back Chris Parker (now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars) for two seasons at Marshall (1994-95). "But I wanted the challenge. I thought I could play on that level."

Pruett said Gary "exaggerated" what he told him about his chances in the SEC. "He's a good player, I think a lot of him," Pruett said. "We're sorry to see him leave. He wanted to play at Georgia, that was his dream. I never told him he wasn't good enough."

For 1 1/2 seasons, it looked as if Gary had made the wrong choice. He sat out the 1996 season per NCAA transfer rules, and then couldn't break away from the pack.

When he became eligible in 1997, it was obvious Gary wasn't going to supplant starting halfback Robert Edwards, a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots. Gary averaged six carries a game and gained 381 yards. This season it was, as Gary called it, "running back by committee." Through the first seven games, he averaged just nine carries a contest.

Then, with his college career winding down in November, Gary broke out. In the eighth game of the season, a 38-7 loss to then-No. 6 Florida, Gary had 73 yards on 13 carries (5.6 per carry). In the ninth game of the season, he went for 130 yards on 24 carries in a 28-17 victory at Auburn, which had the fourth-best defense in the SEC. The next week he had 132 yards on 25 carries against Ole Miss, which was sixth among 12 SEC teams in total defense.

In the regular season finale against Georgia Tech, Gary had 18 carries for 95 yards. He finished the season with 698 yards rushing, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Going into his last college game against No. 13 Virginia (9-2) in Thursday's Peach Bowl, he finally feels fulfilled as a college football player.

"People can't tell about your heart, it's deep down," said Gary, who grew up in Northeast Washington. At 5 feet 11, 213 pounds, he doesn't have halfback speed or fullback size. "Never let anyone tell you what you can't do." Georgia Coach Donnan, whose 19th-ranked Bulldogs are 8-3, said Gary belonged at the Division I level and, "It wasn't a question of him not being able to do it," but Gary at the start was competing with four above-average runners for a starting position.

"It was hard for any one of the running backs to get into the flow and while I know the squeaky wheel gets the oil, I wasn't going to put that pressure on Coach D. to give me the ball," Gary said. "He's like the mad scientist back there, you know, he likes to try a lot of different things."

It's far too early to say that Gary might be like Terrell Davis, who at the same point in his college career was an under-utilized running back as a senior at Georgia. Davis is now the Denver Broncos' running back, a Super Bowl MVP and 2,000-yard rusher in the NFL. Gary, who got his degree last June in consumer economics, says he has one more game to impress NFL scouts and then he will focus on the NFL combine in the spring. "I got to walk in the footsteps of guys like Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton, Tim Worley, Terrell Davis, Garrison Hearst," said Gary of the great Georgia running backs who preceded him. "I didn't get as many carries as I would have liked, but there's nothing I would change, there's no regrets. People come up to me and say Man, you run hard.' That's satisfaction enough for me." CAPTION: Georgia running back Olandis Gary (Riverdale Baptist) has rushed for 698 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. ec