A pair of large diamond studs gleam from Thomas Jones's ears. They are gifts from the Virginia senior tailback's girlfriend. They also are perhaps the only thing flashy about him.

"I go out every play, try to get five, six yards every time," Jones said, "Eventually, I'll pop a big one. That's how I feel about running the ball. As far as being flashy, that's not my style at all."

His lack of flair might be the reason he has received relatively little preseason attention, given his 1998 season: 1,303 yards rushing, 15 touchdowns, first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference. He was named a second-team preseason all-American by the Football News, his highest accolade among the preseason magazines. He was rated just the No. 12 running back in the nation in The Sporting News' preseason preview.

Jones is quiet and serious, a reflection of his roots in Big Stone Gap, Va., a small town in the southwestern part of the state. His father was an admissions counselor at the University of Tennessee and now works at a nearby state prison; his mother worked in coal mines for 17 years while raising Jones and his six siblings.

When he arrived in Charlottesville, Jones devoted himself to little more than football and academics. In addition to piling up exceptional statistics on the field, he graduated in three years, receiving a sociology degree in May. He's now pursuing a master's degree in education.

And while more open than before, Jones remains reluctant to talk about his own abilities, even among his teammates.

"Nobody thinks [of him] as the all-American," senior fullback Anthony Southern said. "He's just another one of the guys who has to go out and do what he has to. He hangs out, he plays the game, but he doesn't like to be in the limelight. He's a real quiet dude."

Because of that, none of his teammates knows what went through Jones's mind during his turbulent sophomore year. Although he rushed for 692 yards, fourth-best in the ACC, his performance was considered a disappointment. He was labeled an unworthy successor to Tiki Barber, the most prolific rusher in school history who had graduated the previous spring. It could have been overwhelming -- Barber had predicted before he left that Jones would break all of his records. Instead, Jones just shrugged it off and doubled his efforts for 1998.

"I was young; I had just turned 19 during the season," Jones said. "I understood how it was. People wanted to see Tiki; they wanted to see the yards Tiki had, the plays Tiki made. When someone is new, and they're not doing that, they're going to say `He's not as good as Tiki.' All you can do is forget about it and move on."

Jones, already a hard worker, pushed himself even harder during the ensuing spring and summer practice sessions. Faster and stronger, he dominated the ACC rushing statistics, outdistancing Maryland's LaMont Jordan, his nearest pursuer, by nearly 400 yards. And now, he is 1,189 yards from breaking Barber's school career record.

It is no secret the Cavaliers' offense this season largely will be based around Jones. His main backup last season, junior Antwoine Womack, who rushed for 708 yards last season, is redshirting while awaiting trial on charges of malicious wounding. In addition, the team is breaking in a new quarterback, junior Dan Ellis, to replace two-year starter Aaron Brooks.

Jones "is a good security blanket for anybody," Ellis said. "If you're handing the ball off to Thomas Jones, you know you're going to get your five yards."

Jones knows opponents will try to emulate the success Duke and Virginia Tech had against him last fall. Those teams limited him to 37 and 55 yards, respectively, by putting eight and nine defenders at the line of scrimmage."That's fine," he said. "If they miss one tackle or come up too far, we can throw the ball, too."

Virginia offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill has a similar idea -- and maybe a way to make Jones even more elusive.

He said: "I'd like to maybe get [Jones] more involved in catching the ball."

1998 Results.

at Auburn W19-0

Maryland W31-19

Clemson W20-18

at Duke W24-0

San Jose State W52-14

at Georgia Tech L41-38

N.C. State W23-13

at Wake Forest W38-17

at Florida State L45-14

North Carolina W30-13

at Virginia Tech W36-32

vs. Georgia

in Peach Bowl L35-33