Saturday at Byrd Stadium, Maryland and Virginia will meet in a game featuring two of the nation's top running backs--the Cavaliers' Thomas Jones, who leads the nation's Division I-A teams in rushing, and the Terrapins' LaMont Jordan, who is sixth. As a prelude, The Washington Post will profile Jordan today and Jones on Friday.

Maryland fans have been waiting for weeks for tailback LaMont Jordan to drop the other cleat. They know this is the time, near the end of a glorious junior season, for him to start crafting a little wiggle room relative to leaving for the pros.

Steve Francis comes to mind. Throughout the latter stages of the Terrapins' run to the NCAA basketball tournament's round of 16 some nine months ago, Francis kept saying he was 99 percent sure of returning for his senior season. Then, sure enough, he quickly hopped through that one percent crack he had carved for himself and became the second player selected in the NBA draft.

This is Jordan's story: He will return for his senior season. It hasn't varied since rumors of his imminent ascension to the NFL surfaced a month or so ago, when he began climbing the national rushing charts. He insists it won't change, that the NFL draft will come and go in April without him.

"I'm not going anywhere," Jordan said. "I'm definitely going to be back next year."

Definitely, as in 100 percent?

"Yes."

Jordan did think about bolting to the NFL. He'd be a fool not to. But he ran into an obstacle that, for once, he could not bull over or run around--reality.

"I told myself that the only way I'd leave early is if I would end up the first, second or third pick in the draft," he said. "I knew there was no chance of that happening."

Keeping Up With Jones

Going into Saturday's game against Virginia and its even more glittering senior, Thomas Jones, Jordan has a chance of grabbing some significant school records while moving into position to collect nearly all of them next season.

Jordan is one touchdown shy of the single-season record of 16, 33 yards from Charlie Wysocki's single-season rushing record of 1,359 yards and 396 yards from Wysocki's career record of 3,317.

Beyond Maryland, Jordan needs 79 yards to become the fourth Atlantic Coast Conference player to reach 3,000 career yards as a junior. Jones's average of 170.7 yards in 10 games is the nation's best; Jordan's average of 132.6 in 10 games is sixth.

Jordan also is one of six players, among them Jones and Heisman Trophy favorite Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, in the top 15 in the three most important areas for a running back: rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards. Jordan is the only one who will return next season.

Not surprisingly, Jordan has studied Jones.

"He can make you miss," Jordan said. "One play I saw, against Wake Forest, he made three people miss. They dived at him, and they hit nothing but grass. On one play. I've tried some of his moves, and almost hurt myself doing 'em. He's good. The boy is good."

Watching game tapes of the 5-foot-11, 216-pound Jordan makes Maryland's offensive linemen, especially seniors Jamie Wu, Brad Messina and John Waerig, smile. They love seeing a tackler maneuver into position to stop a tank--then realizing too late that this tank has a turbocharger.

"His speed is kind of deceiving," Messina, the left tackle, said. "You think he's gotten tackled [for a short gain]--and all of a sudden he's breaking it outside and running 30 more yards."

One of Jordan's runs, a 70-yarder on a short pass for a touchdown late in the Wake Forest game, keeps getting more heroic with each recounting. That's because one of the Demon Deacons who couldn't catch him, Reggie Austin, had finished second in the 100-meter dash at the ACC championships last spring.

Jordan has had more productive games than the 169-yard effort on 27 carries against Florida State last Saturday. But the top-ranked Seminoles always have one of the nation's best rushing defenses, and they knew Maryland's passing game was close to woeful. Jordan's total was the most yards they had allowed one running back in four years.

The run in that game that pleased Jordan the most was a 66-yarder, to the Florida State 14-yard line, with fewer than five minutes left in the third quarter, because he was able to twist safety Derrick Gibson into an embarrassing miss just beyond the line.

"Ever since last year, he'd been talking trash," Jordan said. "I had to find a way to get back at him."

He Lays It on the Line

Smart and honest, Jordan includes his linemen whenever possible. Wu and Messina help spring him on inside runs and Waerig, the tight end, gives him the corner on the option pitches from the quarterback that have become Maryland's signature plays this season.

Maryland Coach Ron Vanderlinden calls the 267-pound Waerig the ACC's best blocking tight end, and said he had 10 knockdowns against Duke. Not coincidentally, Jordan had 227 yards that day, a career best by 50 yards.

"Once [Waerig] gets those paws on you, up underneath, you might as well call it quits," Jordan said. "We'll talk [between plays] now and then. And any way I want him to take his man, outside or inside, he does it. I'm really going to miss him next year."

Said Waerig: "If I give him the edge, he has the ability to make that one guy miss and take it all the way."

All that said and done, Jordan and his coaches know he can get lots better.

"Physically, I don't think I'm ready for the next level yet," he said. "I really haven't had one solid year of lifting weights."

Or, he adds, one solid year of work in the classroom.

"This year is going better than the previous two," he said, declining to offer specifics about why he needed to do well in several summer classes to be eligible this season. "I still have some stepping up to do, but I'm making strides. I'm pretty comfortable with where I'm at now."

That also has taken some time. He has talked about being bitter about his first choice of colleges, North Carolina, telling him it could wait no longer for him to get the required score on the Scholastic Assessment Test and backing off a scholarship offer. That had a carry-over early on at Maryland.

"I felt like the coaching staff was picking on me," he said. "I didn't understand a lot of things, so I just wasn't enjoying myself. I'm having fun with football for the first time. What I mean is wanting to be on the football field, wanting to be at practice, wanting to be around my teammates, understanding that the coaching staff isn't picking on me but trying to make me better.

"I'm just starting to enjoy this atmosphere now."

To that, running backs coach Mike Locksley responds with a chuckle and the satisfaction of sensing Jordan, who turned 21 a week ago, has matured quite a lot in the past several months.

"You're always harder on freshmen," said Locksley, "because you want to mold them the right way. Then you let the rein loser, but not totally. He's gotten better--each practice, each game--at really understanding what it takes to be a great back. I'm also sure you still haven't seen the best LaMont. I'd like to see him [about 10 pounds lighter] and with the speed he came in with.

"Academically, it's still too early this semester to tell. But where he might have been batting 10 percent, he's at about 70 percent now. He's also now in his major [communications], taking courses he enjoys more."

Jordan has thought through his decision to return so thoroughly that even he has included the possibility of serious injury.

"I still will have a redshirt year," he said. "And if I get five years, I'm definitely going to graduate. . . . [Growing up] is a slow process, and college is the one opportunity where you can make mistakes and come back, where you can find yourself, who you are. I'm always going to be happy I made this decision."

Top Rushers

NCAA Division I-A

Yds. per

Player, school game

1. Thomas Jones, Virginia 170.70

2. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin 166.73

3. Travis Prentice, Miami (Ohio) 149.60

4. Ladainian Tomlinson, TCU 146.56

5. Frank Moreau, Louisville 135.00

6. LaMont Jordan, Maryland 132.60

7. Darren Davis, Iowa State 131.30

8. Trung Canidate, Arizona 131.27

9. Thomas Hamner, Minnesota 127.90

10. Ken Simonton, Oregon St. 126.60

A Year To Remember

LaMont Jordan is sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game and is just one touchdown short of Maryland's season record for rushing touchdowns.

1999 stats

Opponent Result/Carries/Yards/TDs

Temple W, 6-0/21/41/0

W. Carolina W, 51-10/18/158/3

West Virginia W, 33-0/22/164/1

Georgia Tech L, 49-31/27/79/2

Wake Forest W, 17-14/18/89/1

Clemson L, 42-30/26/177/4

North Carolina W, 45-7/26/147/2

Duke L, 25-22/24/227/0

N.C. State L, 30-17/20/75/1

Florida State L, 49-10/27/169/0

Rushing totals 5-5/229/1,326/14*

*Jordan also has one receiving touchdown for a total of 15

Career stats

Season Carries/Yards/TDs

1997 159/689/3

1998 169/906/6

1999 229/1,326/14 (+1 rec.)

Totals 557/2,921/23 (+1 rec.)