-- As he limped to the sideline that afternoon last September, Virginia inside linebacker Rich Bedesem might have been forgiven for a twinge of self pity. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee -- again.

Two years earlier, Bedesem's sophomore season had been wiped out by the same injury. He knew surgery and long months of rehabilitation awaited. "I was disappointed," he recalled, but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he decided to play through the injury.

"It couldn't get any worse, it couldn't get any better at that point without surgery," said Bedesem, now a fifth-year senior. "And if I'd got surgery there, I would have been out all spring anyway, so I might as well just try to help the team as best I can and then get it fixed after the season."

Through October, November and December, the Holland, Pa., native played when he could and sat out when necessary, ceding most of his duties to Kai Parham, a young star in the making. Yet now, as the 16th-ranked Cavaliers prepare for Saturday's season opener at Temple, Bedesem is healthy again and, in the words of Coach Al Groh, "playing clearly the best that he's played.

"Once Richie got hurt last year, he really might as well have changed his name," Groh said. "He just couldn't play like Richie anymore. He really just tried to gut it out so that we would have him there in case. He's very heady, very sharp out there and has done very well. It's been fun to see."

His resurgence helped produce the biggest surprise of Virginia's preseason training camp: Bedesem, not Ahmad Brooks, wears the orange jersey of a starting defender.

"In order to have an orange jersey you have to earn it," said outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who has owned one for the past two years. "He earned it."

Yet not even Bedesem would argue he is the physical equal of Brooks, a sophomore from Hylton High who led Virginia with 117 tackles last year and has as much promise as any young player in the nation. Groh, for his part, has given only obtuse explanations why Brooks is no longer the clear-cut starter.

It might have something to do with the brief sabbatical Brooks took from practice two weeks ago to resolve what he called "personal issues." It might reflect the fact that Bedesem, unlike Brooks, has mastered the nuances of Virginia's 3-4 defense.

Defensive end Brennan Schmidt, one of the team's four captains, suggested the coaches might have made the move "to motivate [Brooks] as a young player."

"I think definitely his challenge is more mental -- being more comfortable in there and learning what you've got to do -- because that's a really tough position," Schmidt said.

As Brooks drew most of the attention, Bedesem kept plugging away. He found he could relax and stop worrying about his knee giving out. He found he once again had the leverage to take on oncoming blockers.

"It's a lot different," he said. Last season "my body knew what to do; it just couldn't do it. Having a whole offseason to just rehab and get my knee strong again, it makes a world of difference."

The first real test, of course, will come Saturday against the Owls. Bedesem said he doesn't know yet if he or Brooks will wind up starting; he's more interested in finding out if he is ready to again perform up to his old standards.

"I guess we'll find out when we step onto the field Saturday," Bedesem said. "I feel like I'm healthy. We'll see."

Cavaliers Notes: Brooks and Marquis Weeks will line up to return kickoffs Saturday, and Alvin Pearman will be the first-string punt returner.

Groh said he plans to decide soon whether Kurt Korte or Sean Johnson will start at punter, though "the final determination probably will really only come from game competition. We might want to see both of them here during the early going of the season." . . .

Wali Lundy is among 42 players on the initial list of candidates for the Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation's best running back.

RICH BEDESEM

. . . will likely start in Saturday's season opener vs. Temple