COLLEGE PARK -- The week before the opening game against Virginia, Larry Washington approached Maryland running backs coach Paul Castonia with a question.
"Am I going to play?" Washington asked.
"Probably not," Castonia said, noting that Troy Jackson and Mark Mason, the Terps' top two running backs, were in good health.
The following week, before the Syracuse game, Washington bounced the same question off Castonia and got the same answer. He tried again last week, and this time the response was a maybe.
"I'm ready, Coach," Washington said.
Sure enough, he ran back two kickoffs, one for 30 yards, and rushed once, for 2 yards, in the Terps' 37-7 loss to West Virginia last Saturday. The pride of Randallstown High had spoken.
"We're going to be able to play him," coach Joe Krivak said. "He's good enough to play right now. He's like Mason was last year."
Mason made an occasional appearance as a true freshman, then darted into prominence with 116 yards and two touchdowns in the season-ending upset of Virginia.
Mason, Jackson, Washington and redshirt freshman Doug Burnett are now the leading running backs. Washington would be redshirted now only in the event of a severe injury.
"I was tired of sitting on the bench," Washington said. "I'm used to playing all the time."
Perhaps the most highly recruited player in the state in years, Washington chose Maryland over Tennessee, Clemson, Michigan and Georgia Tech. He gained 2,275 yards -- most ever by a state high school athlete -- and scored 34 TDs in leading Randallstown to a 13-0 record and the state Class 4A championship. In June, Washington was named The Evening Sun Male Athlete of the Year.
When Washington reported here in August, he was 13 pounds overweight at 222 because he had been unable to work out after injuring his foot in the Big 33 game matching teams from Maryland and Pennsylvania.
"That kept him out two or three days after the freshmen reported," Castonia said. "But ever since he's done all we've asked. He's a quick learner, as far as assignments and techniques are concerned. He's focused on what he has to do to be good. You don't have to tell him twice.
"Larry has football smarts. There are guys who have been here for four years who don't have his football savvy. We teach running backs to fall forward; he does that instinctively. He's smart enough on man-to-man pass coverage to know when to break the pattern and go off on his own if he's covered."
On Washington's 30-yard kickoff return against West Virginia, Castonia noticed several things he liked. Washington read his blocks well and then made an effort to stay in bounds, thereby netting 4 extra yards.
"You need experience to be a good kickoff returner because you have to read 10 blocks," Castonia said. "Larry will get more work on kickoffs and on offense. We have four capable running backs. It'll be a matter of who has the hot hand or who practices well as to who plays."
While admitting he was a bit nervous Saturday, Washington's only real concern was that he might drop the kickoff. He allowed that the opposing players were faster and "hit harder" than they did in high school.
"But it's mostly a learning process," Washington said. "Learning blocking assignments and going the right way. It came pretty easy to me. I've been watching and playing all my life."
Castonia has a suspicion that the best is yet to come.
"By next year I expect him to be a lot better," Castonia said. "He will have learned, and can just run and react. A winter of running and weightlifting -- he never had that -- will do him a world of good."
* Quarterback Jim Sandwisch pronounced himself 85 percent sound and said he expects to be 100 percent when Maryland plays at Pitt Oct. 5 after this weekend's open date. His throat infection is gone and his elbow and shoulder are OK, he said.
The coaches have cooled on John Kaleo, the junior college transfer who was No. 2 behind Sandwisch. Judging by practice yesterday, the ranking behind Sandwisch now is true freshman Scott Milanovich, redshirt freshman Tony Scarpino and Kaleo.
Kaleo completed eight of 19 in a half against Syracuse, but threw three interceptions. Starting in Sandwisch's place against West Virginia, Kaleo completed one pass (for a TD) in three attempts, but missed some signals and was quickly yanked in favor of the ailing Sandwisch.