Two years ago, Yubrenal Isabelle made his collegiate football debut against Clemson in Death Valley, and returned a changed man. The experience got him incredibly worked up in his dorm room afterward, as he excitedly told his hallmates about the speed and the noise of the college game.

He returns to Memorial Stadium Saturday as the Cavaliers' starting middle linebacker, inheriting the job from standout Wali Rainer after two years of backup and special teams duty. In that first game, he made only one tackle. Now, he is the nerve center of a young Cavaliers' defense with an ever-thinning depth chart, and potentially the next in a string of NFL-bound Virginia linebackers.

Cleveland selected Rainer in the fourth round of this year's NFL draft, and Rainer recently was named the Browns' starting middle linebacker. James Farrior and Jamie Sharper were picked in 1997 and have performed well with the Jets and Ravens, respectively. Jeff Lageman and David Griggs fashioned multiyear careers after being selected in the 1989 draft.

With a pair of experienced outside linebackers in senior Shannon Taylor and junior Byron Thweatt, Isabelle completes a promising group whose limitation is its depth. Isabelle was on the field for nearly as many plays (69) in the Cavaliers' season-opening 20-17 win at North Carolina last week as the 70 he played his entire freshman year, when he was used mostly as a wedge-buster on the kickoff unit. Only one non-starting linebacker, junior Earl Sims, participated in more than 30 plays.

"I try not to look at it as getting tired," Isabelle said. "I look at it as an opportunity to go out there and make something happen."

Isabelle's style of play reminds his teammates of Rainer, who made 134 tackles last season en route to first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. On the field, Isabelle asserted control quickly, leading the team without uncertainty.

"He was out there, vocal, and it boosted my confidence in him," Thweatt said. "Being the type of person he is, I just knew that's how he is going to be. He could be wrong, but he's out there saying something. When I was new, I didn't say anything out there."

His debut as a starter against the Tar Heels was a solid if unspectacular performance, with three tackles and one pass broken up. Thweatt praised his tackling and leadership, particularly since he easily could have lost his poise while chasing athletic Tar Heels quarterback Ronald Curry.

"Isabelle made some really good plays, but he is not a polished middle linebacker yet," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "I think he could be very good."

Isabelle almost did not come to Charlottesville. After earning Parade all-American honors at Bluefield (W. Va.) High, Isabelle unofficially committed to Virginia Tech. But he grew increasingly uncertain as the weeks passed, and began to look for help from his family, which plays a prominent role in Isabelle's life.

His father, Thomas, played linebacker and nose guard at West Virginia and his brother, William, is a blue-chip prep offensive line prospect, so they would seem to have had the best understanding of his situation. Both are part of a huge family caravan that attends each of his games, piling up to a dozen people into his room. But ultimately, it was his mother, Deberah, who helped him make the call that landed him at U-Va.

"I just prayed about it and woke up early one morning, woke my mom up and told her, `I don't feel comfortable about what I did,' " Isabelle said. "I was tired, listening to my coaches and different people in my area. I wasn't doing it for myself. Tech's a good school, but it just wasn't for me."

Cavaliers Notes: Welsh said sophomore defensive tackle Monsanto Pope was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam today to determine the damage of a knee injury he suffered against the Tar Heels. Pope likely will be out six weeks with a torn ligament. Welsh also said tight end Casey Crawford (O'Connell High), a first team all-ACC selection in 1998, likely will miss the Clemson game while recovering from a groin injury, and cornerback Dwayne Stukes is questionable with a thigh bruise.