The hand-printed sign under his glass desk top was made right after Tulane Coach Larry Smith watched the films of his team's games in last year's 3-8 season. It reads: "Build a great defense."

At the heart of this plan is a veteran sophomore middle guard who said last month: "We want to change Tulane's reputation. We want to win."

The Green Wave comes into Maryland's Byrd Stadium Saturday for the season-opener for both teams led by a reasonably potent offense. The quarterback, third-year starter Roch Hontas, led the nation in pass-completion percentage last year (63.4 percent) and threw for 1,277 yards. The veteran offensive line averages 6-foot-4, 251 pounds.

But the defense is young (two seniors), unproven (six new starters) and so very green that Coach Smith did not permit any players to be interviewed this week.

"It's not that I don't want them to be interviewed," said Smith. It's just that this is our first game, and we have some very nervous, very young people here. For them, the first game is a little different from all the rest."

Smith candidly admitted that he does not know exactly what to expect from his defensive unit. "It's pretty much rebuilt," said Smith. "We have a little more ability. But certainly no experience."

Middle guard Wilfred Simon, the veteran sophomore, is the leader of the group. The Green Wave gave up an average of more than 26 points a game last year - quite a topic of conversation among Simon and his buddies.

"We want to be a good defense this year." Simon said last week. "We talked about it all spring. We talked about it all summer."

Tulane plays a five-man front, which Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne suspects is strongest in the middle. "Simon takes care of things from tackle to tackle," said Claiborne.

"We talked to the LSU coach (Charlie McClendon) and he told us that last year Tulane was just a couple of tackles away from being a real fine football team. Apparently they have strengthened their team with a couple of new tackles (Tom Cheviot at the left, Arnie Diaz at the right).

"What worries us is that they have a lot of players coming back who lost their (starting) jos. That would indicate to us that they've got to be stronger."

The Green Wave has three veteran juniors and a senior in the secondary, but two untested sophomores start at the linebacker spots.

Left linebacker Frank Robinson, a graduate of Easton High in Easton, Md., will have some relatives sprinkled through the crowd and Smith said, "I think Frank will be particularly up for this game.

"We moved him from defensive back last year. He has good speed and he's a super-quality kid. He runs from sideline to sideline."

Tulane's best players are Hontas, the quarterback, and placekicker Ed Murray, who holds the Tulane record for career field-goal attempts (38) and career field goals made (22). Murray, from Victoria, B.C., turned down an offer to play professionally in Canada, and won a game for Tulane last year by kicking three field goals against Cincinnati - tying his own single-game record.

Hontas, from Canton, Ohio, rejected an offer from Ohio State to take part in Tulane's pre-med program. Hontas had one B in high school to mar an otherwise straight. A report card. He has combined brains with physical ability to provide the Green Wave with a diversified pass attack that netted 1,775 yards last year, compared with 1,367 rushing.

"Offensively, the biggest thing we 63 percent of your passes, you've got to have a good arm."

Hontas has learned to cope with the sometimes peculiar turn of events in Tulane football games the past two years, when the Green Wave won five games and lost 17.

"I've always though it a good policy, even if you don't know what you're doing, to at least look like you know what you're doing," Hontas said in a recent interview. "If you can at least look right, you're going to feel some of the people some of the time."

Hontas' short passing attack is particularly lethal. Against SMU last year, he completed 33 of 42 passes for 373 yards, both Tulane records.

But the Green Wave lost the game.

That's why Smith has a hardprinted sign under his desk top.

"We got into a lot of situations last year when we had to throw," said Smith. "It is our best weapon right now and we're going to use it. But I believe to have a good program, you must have a good running game. And a great defense."

You can fool a lot more people but way.