Maryland tailback Steve Atkins, who seldom has been healthy enough during his career to live up to expectations, has been lifted from Saturday's starting lineup with a slight knee ligament strain.

Preacher Maddox will start in Atkins' spot against North Carolina State at Raleigh.

After averaging 124 yards rushing in his first four games last year, Atkins suffered a knee injury against North Carolina State and missed the rest of the season. He vowed that this would be the year he would prove his ability and toughness.

His present injury, to the other knee, was suffered early in last Saturday's game at Penn State and is not thought to be serious.Dr. Stanford Lavine, Maryland team doctor, described the injury as "uncomfortable" and said there appeared to be no swelling or serious complication.

Recovery is difficult to predict, Dr. Lavine said. It is unknown if Atkins will play at all Saturday in a game in which the Terps will seek to break a two-game losing streak and revive their feeble rushing game.

Atkins returned home to Virginia for the funeral of an uncle and was not available for comment. He is not expected to practice this week.

The Terps also may be without leading receiver Vince Kiney, who sprained an ankle against Penn State and has been held out of practice.

X-rays showed that defensive back Dough Harbert broke his collar bone in two places and he is out for several weeks, perhaps the rest of the season. Safety Jonathan Claiborne has a hamstring muscle pull and is not expected to play. Lloyd Burrus, the only healthy starter in the secondary, was held out of contact yesterday with a back bruise.

The replacements in the secondary, John Stanford at safety and Chris Ward at right halfback, are both lettermen. Still Claiborne expects to see some passing from N.C. State, the last ACC team to beat Maryland 21 conference games ago.

"They'll throw the bomb at least five or six times," he said.

Maddox, who is 36 pounds lighter than the 225-pound Atkins, took over and gained 138 yards on 21 carries. Sophomore George Scott, the leading rusher for the Terps against Penn State, will alternate with Maddox.

"I like to start, but it really doesn't make any difference, as long as I get to play," said Maddox, who has the team's highest per-carry average (4.6 yards) with 93 yards on 19 carries. "I'm especially looking forward to playing against North Carolina State. Last year against them, I got caught on a long run by a guy who lives 20 minutes from my hometown - Richard Carter, their cornerback."

After the team rushed for only 31 yards on 37 carries against Penn State the priority at College Park has become reviving the once powerful running game, along with bolstering the pass rush.

It is apparent both lines miss players lost from last year's 11-1 team - Ed Fulton, Dave Conrad and Tom Schick from the offensive line and defensive tackles Joe Campbell and Ralph Fisher, the pass rush specialists.

The offensive line has been further hampered by injuries to would-be starter Kervin Wyatt, who has undergone knee surgery and is out for the season, and to reserves Mike Simon and Paul Glamp.

The Termps' offense especially has been ineffective near the goal line, wasting four first-and-goal situations this year. In reference to North Carolina State, coach Jerry Claiborne said: "We swapped film with them and I tried to look at their goal line defense. Nobody's been down there."

Claiborne told a news conference he hoped his players would shake off their defeats to West Virginia and Penn State.

"Our players have class," said Claiborne. "I think they'll come back."

Asked about the bowl bid possibilities of a 9-2 team. Claiborne replied, "9-2? "We're trying for 2-2."