Stephen Davis's success seems as if it has come overnight. Only three months ago he was battling Skip Hicks in training camp for the Washington Redskins' starting tailback job. Now he has filled the NFL's running back void this season created by the absences of Barry Sanders, Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis.

It has not been overnight success, however. It has been a gradual, often tedious process that has taken several years.

"You're looking at a guy who has grown up a lot and is having a really good year," said Redskins running game coordinator Bobby Jackson.

When Davis first walked into Redskin Park as a fourth-round draft choice out of Auburn in 1996, he and Redskins officials could dream about major accomplishments in his future. But what the Redskins saw early on was a big running back who often ran like a small running back, and a sometimes immature player who never had been taught the importance of putting in the necessary time in the weight room.

Davis and the Redskins have worked to transform him into a still-speedy but now-powerful runner who finds the right holes, makes the right decisions and bulldozes straight ahead. He has become a running back who delivers blows to tacklers as often as he receives them, and he has improved his work habits in the weight room to become the sort of dependable workhorse who shrugged off a bruised thigh muscle last Sunday to turn 33 carries into 183 yards--the highest single-game rushing total in the NFL this season--in the Redskins' crucial 23-13 triumph over the New York Giants at FedEx Field.

"It's satisfying, but I still have a long way to go," said Davis, who was named NFC offensive player of the week for his performance against the Giants. "I'm having fun. I'm enjoying myself out there. Hopefully I can keep it up. . . . I felt I had the ability. I'm just glad the coaches had the confidence in me to give me the opportunity."

Ten games into his first season as a full-time starter, Davis leads the league in rushing yards and touchdowns and is on course to break the Redskins' single-season rushing record of 1,353 yards set by Terry Allen in '96.

The Redskins couldn't be more delighted by Davis's success this season. It's not just that his 1,034 yards and 15 touchdowns have helped the Redskins to a 6-4 record and a spot atop the NFC East. It's that he has worked so hard and come so far.

"Stephen always, in my mind, was a very natural runner," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said. "He could see the holes. He always had good speed. It's the toughness and maturity. He's running very physical right now. He's done a good job in our weight program. He's stronger. When he first got here, he had a lot of nicks. Now he doesn't."

Turner was asked whether Davis was ready to be a featured NFL running back when he first arrived in the league.

"He was ready athletically," Turner said. "But I don't think he'd put in a lot of work in the weight room. Strength and endurance would have been factors. To hold up over 16 games is a real challenge."

What the Redskins saw in Davis early in his career was a body that they considered too soft and an attitude that they feared might be too laid back to get him where he wanted to go.

"We tell our rookies when they first come in that, athletically, most of them are good enough to play in the NFL," said the team's longtime strength coach, Dan Riley. "But that's not enough. We inherit some players with very good work habits, and some that haven't had good work habits. It's not that those players aren't hard workers. It's that the environment they were in, they were allowed to get by. We try to adjust that so they can survive and succeed in the NFL. Stephen has made a significant improvement."

Davis, a fourth-year pro, said he learned by watching Allen and Brian Mitchell early in his career.

"When I first got in the league, I didn't know what to expect," Davis said. "Playing behind Terry Allen and watching Brian Mitchell and how those guys prepared themselves, I really learned from them. I'm utilizing what I learned from them."

Now the Redskins see a lot of Allen's traits in Davis. He is a punishing runner who takes what's there rather than trying to turn every play into a touchdown--and risking negative results in that pursuit.

"Terry Allen and Brian Mitchell got him tougher," Redskins guard Tre Johnson said. "When he first got here, he was a big back who was trying to dance around because of his speed. Now he'll stick his shoulder in there. Everybody who's been around here for any length of time knew he had the ability and knew he could do this if he had the opportunity."

Said Turner: "Stephen is a lot faster than Terry. I think being with Terry helped Stephen with his inside running. He understands there are times where you just have to take the three yards that are there. He's a cutback runner. Everyone has to develop his own style. In college, the holes are a lot bigger and stay open a lot longer. Up here, they're smaller and they close faster. It's an adjustment."

Jackson talks about Davis's development stemming from him becoming more confident and tougher, both physically and mentally. He talks about Davis improving his running techniques, such as getting his shoulder pads lower so that he no longer is an upright runner easily knocked backward or off balance by tacklers. He talks about Davis learning more about how to find holes and use blocks when he served as a blocker last season, filling in at fullback for the injured Larry Bowie.

"He's worked real hard at running with a lower pad level," Jackson said. "He's finishing runs a lot better. He's improved as far as reading the blocks and making the right decisions. As far as his cuts, something that helped was playing fullback last year. He has played fullback, so he understands what the fullback's role is, and the fullback often has the key block in front of you."

Davis, 25, is having his breakthrough season at the right time. He's eligible for unrestricted free agency following the season. A big-money contract undoubtedly is in his future, but he has resisted getting carried away with this season's success.

"Last week was just like another day for him," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "He's what really carries this offense. . . . He's a good guy. He works hard in practice. He doesn't get carried away with player of the week or MVP or any of that stuff. He just wants to go out and prove himself and play some great football, and that's what he's doing."

He already has five more carries, 219 more rushing yards and 10 more rushing touchdowns this season than he had in his previous three NFL seasons combined. He is 10 rushing touchdowns away from Emmitt Smith's single-season league record set in '95. But those at Redskin Park throw names such as Timmy Smith--the one-game wonder who ran for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards in the Redskins' victory over the Denver Broncos in January 1988--at him and remind him that the true test for any NFL star in the making is the test of time.

"He can still improve," Jackson said. "He can get so much better than he is now. Even Sunday, there were some runs where he could have done better. Stephen has grown up a lot, but he's still got a lot of growing up to do. He's having a really good year. But the year's not over yet. When he really gets to be outstanding is when he does what he's doing now for two or three years in a row."