EVERY FEW YEARS or so, BYU seems to send America another dominating distance runner, and, well, here it is, four years since Ed Eyestone graduated and about time for another one. How about a 6-foot-2, 175-pound former walk-on/former defensive end who can bench press well over 200 pounds, yet dash a 48-second quarter? How about Ted Mecham as the latest descendant of the Cummings/Marsh/Padilla/Eyestone family tree?

Mecham, a sophomore from Spokane, has charged out of nowhere this season to become BYU's most promising middle distance/distance runner in years. So new is he to the track scene that few have heard of Mecham yet, but that could change at this week's NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore.The Western Athletic Conference learned of Mecham this year after watching him win the conference indoor and outdoor mile championships, the latter coming 24 hours after winning the steeplechase title.

"I want to retire and coach him," said no less than Henry Marsh after watching Mecham. In fact, Marsh, who has ranked among the top 10 steeplechasers in the world for a decade, will retire following this season and, in the minds of some, Mecham might well be his heir. Of course, such talk is premature; Mecham's career has barely begun. But so far he has demonstrated so much raw ability that such expectations are difficult to resist.

Mecham tried the steeplechase for the first time only last March, and his times have dropped rapidly since then. First 8:53, then 9:18 (at altitude), 8:49, 9:01 (at altitude) and 8:39.98, which qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Trials in only his fifth race at that distance.

"He's a real talent," says Marsh. "He's young, he's got good speed and he's strong, which is a prerequisite for the steeplechase. He's got everything it takes; he's got a lot of potential. I'm curious to see how he does at the NCAA meet; that will be a big indicator."

"He's got a lot of talent," says Olympic distance runner Paul Cummings. "There's no question about it."

Mecham is understandably still rough around the edges, which bodes well for continuing improvement. "He can improve on the water jump," says BYU distance coach Sherald James. "He floats it; he needs to charge it. That's what Henry does so well. But Ted's not confident yet."

Mecham's confidence no doubt was shaken by a couple of near spills. In several of his races he has gone down on all fours coming off the water jump. When he ran his 8:39.98 in Oregon, he ran cautiously. "I could have won it, coach," he told James afterward. "I knew I was within qualifying, so I was careful."

While Mecham is learning the nuances of steepling he'll survive on his natural gifts of speed and strength, which are formidable. He has clocked 1:50 for 800 meters and earlier this month outkicked Doug Padilla, one of the world's top 5,000-meter runners and kickers, to win a low-key 1,500-meter race in Provo. He has run the 1,500 only twice at sea level this season, but still has managed a respectable 3:47.2 clocking - roughly, a 4:04 mile.

Mecham has remarkable strength for a miler - both the kind that allows him to sustain speed for long distances and the kind that is found in the weight room. When Mecham was a high school freshman, he benched 250 pounds. He has since benched 275. But, then, at the time Mecham looked more defensive end than distance runner. In high school, he beefed up to 195 pounds each fall to play as an offensive and defensive lineman on the football team, then took off 20 pounds in the spring to become a middle-distance runner.

"I wanted to play college football," recalls Mecham. An all-conference defensive end, he was recruited by football schools early in his prep career, but by the time he was a senior the interest had died out. Despite promising credentials (a 4:15 mile, a 1:53 half-mile), Mecham was recruited by only one college track coach _ Utah State's Ralph Maughan.

Instead of attending USU, Mecham left on a two-year LDS Church mission, then walked-on at BYU last year. "I didn't even know who he was," says BYU head coach Clarence Robison. James, the team's distance coach, was skeptical, but he told Mecham to come see him again after doing six 60-mile weeks of overdistance training.

"We have so many kids come to us asking to try out," says James. "Most kids don't come back." But three weeks later Mecham returned, saying, "Coach, I'm not getting enough of a workout." So James put him through some hard interval training. "Within six weeks he ran a 4:09 mile," says James, incredulously. "That opened my eyes. But still, to be honest, I thought he'd fall apart some time _ but he never did." Indeed, in last year's outdoor WAC championships, Mecham, then a freshman just five months back from his mission, placed second in the 1,500.

"Nothing he does would surprise me now," says James.

But one suspects others are in for more surprises from Mecham _ perhaps beginning at this week's NCAA championships.