LaMont Jordan describes the feeling as "like falling off a cliff." Maryland's star tailback hardly was the first student to experience academic free fall, in his case needing to pass all his summer school courses. But the stakes for him were higher than most as he sat in the basement of his home in early August waiting for his grades to arrive, alone and looking sadly at his dozens of trophies, not at all certain he'd done enough to stay eligible to play this season.

"People had been coming up to me, wanting my autograph and saying they couldn't wait to watch me this season--and I wasn't sure I'd even be dressing out," Jordan said. "I'd go home at night and say: 'Damn, I screwed this up. I'm not going to get in this position any more.' "

Jordan, a junior, declined to say how many courses he needed to pass, only that there were "a lot," and that he earned at least a "C" in each. The scare seems to have motivated the former Suitland High standout, for not only has Jordan been running exceptionally for the Terrapins (3-0), he also has shown more enthusiasm in practice and in his classes.

"The biggest example came earlier this week, when he came into the office and asked what kind of things he could do to break arm tackles," said running backs coach Mike Locksley. "That was the first time, outside of meetings and on the field, that he's asked me a football question. He'd seemed like the type of kid who when he was away from football could care less about it.

"This is the third or fourth week of the semester--and we've not had a negative academic report on LaMont. No class misses. No study hall misses. No assignments missed or late. The last couple of years, it's all we could do just to stay on top of him and make sure he's doing the right things off the field. He's not quite where we'd like him to be, but he's slowly moving toward it."

A breakthrough for Jordan this year might well lift the Terrapins, who face 10th-ranked Georgia Tech on Thursday night in Atlanta, to a breakout season. Two seasons ago, Jordan led all Atlantic Coast Conference freshmen in rushing yards (689), attempts (159) and all-purpose yards (920), but he was second in ACC rookie of the year voting to Florida State's Travis Minor.

Last season, Jordan again outgained Minor. But Minor joined the ACC's leading rusher, Thomas Jones of Virginia, on the all-conference first team.

"I believe if Maryland was winning," Jordan said before the season, "I would be first-team all-ACC and Minor wouldn't have been ACC rookie of the year."

Maryland has a chance to improve dramatically, from a total of five victories the past two seasons, and a strong performance by Jordan probably would carry him to the individual honors he also covets. With defenses keying on him, Jordan still gained a career-high 158 yards rushing against Western Carolina on Sept. 11, then bettered that by six yards in Maryland's most recent game, a 33-0 victory over West Virginia eight days ago.

"I'm not sure we know how good LaMont can be," Maryland Coach Ron Vanderlinden said. "I think we're just now starting to see. He's naturally strong and fast. Improvement will come the more he learns to really push the outer edge of the envelope."

Vanderlinden has pushed Jordan, keeping him out of the first quarter of the season opener against Temple for an academic matter he called "an agreement that he broke."

Teammates have noticed Jordan's new attitude.

"Sometimes it made me mad because he was just going through the motions," said senior defensive lineman and co-captain Delbert Cowsette. "That's been him for a long time, since he's been here. He's starting, every now and then, to show [some spirit]. In the summer, he worked his butt off--and got in people's faces who weren't getting with it. He's looking real great in practice."

Also significant in Jordan's motivation are the two backup tailbacks, freshman Bruce Perry and junior Mookie Sikyala, who have run well in practices and in limited game appearances.

"We're getting enough talent to where players have got to show up and perform," said Vanderlinden. "Nothing is just handed to you."

That's also what Suitland Coach Nick Lynch said he kept telling Jordan during the summer: "Take your God-given talents and improve on them. . . . Prove people wrong."

"Everybody has an adjustment period," Lynch added, "but his has been tougher because of all the public attention. I talked to him [after the West Virginia game] and he was so excited about winning. He never talked about what he did."

Jordan said part of the reason for his slow adjustment was not being able to attend North Carolina, his dream school growing up.

"They offered me a scholarship, and I scheduled all my visits around Carolina," he said. "I pretty much was committed. When I got back from my visit to Syracuse, I was all excited about going down to Carolina to visit. But the running backs coach called and said I should think about going somewhere else, because they didn't want to wait to get my [Scholastic Assessment Test] score.

"I got the score in a couple of weeks, but I didn't call because it was quite obvious they didn't have faith in me. My heart was still down there for a while. But I got to thinking about it not long ago and decided the Lord put me [at Maryland] for a reason--and this is why: We're 3-0 and things are going well in my home town.

"I'm very happy I made the decision to stay here."

With 42 yards against Georgia Tech in his 25th career game, Jordan would reach 2,000 for his career in fewer games than any Maryland player except Steve Atkins, who did it in 24 games during the late-1970s. With 1,958 yards, Jordan also is on pace to break Charlie Wysocki's career school rushing record of 3,317 yards.

At 5 feet 11, 216 pounds, Jordan is short but hardly small. In addition to obvious speed and power, he follows blocks very well.

"Sometimes he'll even grab on to a blocker," said senior tackle Brad Messina, "push him where he wants him to go. In the past, he's blocked but not put as much effort in it as he could. Now he just wants to pancake people. And we want to make him the number one back in our league."

That would be fine with Jordan, who says of his agreement with Messina and the other offensive linemen: "You get me [past the line of scrimmage] and I'll take care of the rest. Now it's up to me to start holding up my end of the deal, start breaking long touchdown runs."

But Jordan also stresses his effort at gaining maturity off the field.

"I've got to take that challenge," he said. "Take care of responsibilities, get into my school work, graduate. Pretty much become a man."