In an attempt to paint a team picture of the unbeaten, 10th ranked Maryland Terrapins, one keeps coming back to curly-haired Tim O'Hare, the underdog nonletterman who believed in himself when no one else did.

In O'Hare, a four-year benchsitter, the Terps have a leader in their image. Humbled by last season's obscurity, inspired by summer cynicism, the quarterback who had never started and the team without a single all-conference player set out to prove that they were better than that.

Even now, at 5-0 with a game at weak Syracuse tomorrow, the single image that best portrays the 1978 Terrapin is the quiet underdog.

"There is a calmness about this team. The dorms have become really mellow. There are no water fights. It's never been so quiet," said O'Hare. "It's like we're on a mission."

It is easy for O'Hare to keep a thumb to the pulse of the team, because within his tossed-salad psyche there is a morsel of everyone. O'Hare is a drama major who admits to being part athlete, part aspiring actor and part basic, searching 22-year-old.

There is certainly nothing that all 100-some players might agree on, but O'Hare strikes various chords of approval speaking on a vast range of subjects: on the bending of Coach Jerry Claiborne's training rules, on the roots and reason of the jock lifestyle, on keeping his position away from the eager, young Mike Tice, on understanding the feminist mind, on welcoming back to the team a player who had gone AWOL for twod days and whom Claiborne wanted to cut.

If anything, the 1978 season has been marked as unique by its lack of disagreements. Defensive tackle Charlie Johnson noted that, for the first time in his four years at Maryland, "there was not a single fight during summer two-a-days.

"I can't explaint it," said Johnson, "but the team is tighter than ever before, tighter than the 11-0 (regular season) team (of 1976). The underclassmen didn't feel a part of that team. A freshman was on forbidden ground. You couldn't do anything to a senior. You couldn't talk to him.

"After that, we came back last year and everybody was going to be all-everything. Then, to go from 11-0 to 8-4, we came back this year feeling we had a lot to prove.We're a bunch of nobodies."

When the troubles came last year, many of the barriers that sectioned the team into cliques began to come down. Claiborne, for the first time this year, has mixed freshmen with other players throughout the two floors in Ellicott Hall where the team is required to live.

"The freshmen used to live together on one side of the seventh floor, but this year we know the freshmen a little better," said O'Hare. "There do not seem to be any enemies on the team, or any tensions between groups. Last year there were a few cliques, and I don't want to try to sound like I'm saying we're better than they were. I like those guys. But this team blends so well together, it's hard to tell us apart."

O'Hare is a keen observer of his teammates and enjoys analyzing them. One recent day he and offensive back Don Dotter talked about the difference between Maryland's football and lacrosse teams.

"For the most part, it seemed like the guys on the lacrosse team were from more affluent families," said O'Hare. "On the whole, this team comes from the working class. There's a blue collar ethic running through this team. The difference is almost a blue collar-white collar difference."

In an article last spring in The Washington Post, a couple of Maryland lacrosse players who had played football in high school said they opted for lacross because it is largely free of living restrictions, public pressures and the limits of year-round training.

Many more demands are placed on football players time, and in addition, Claiborne enforces an 11 p.m. curfew during the season, requires the player to live together in Ellicott Hall and forbids the drinking of alcoholic beverages or visits by females to the dormitory floors.

Presumably, a person who is rubbed the wrong way by such large doses of discipline will be systemically weeded out, will decide to go elsewhere, as John Sturdivant, a talented defensive tackle, did last summer, and what would be left would be a group of people dominated by football. There would seem to be no place on the football team for a free spirit like the lacrosse team's George Miller, who tened bar in a latin disco, writes and sings songs, plays the guitar, wears a diamond earring and enjoys exploring nude beaches.

"I don't know if any of our guys wear earrings, but I don't think there's a guy on our team who would refuse to go to a nude beach," said O'Hare. "I'm half-joking about that, but the point is that there are a lot of fun-loving guys on this team, starting with me. We are not celibates. I mean, what price glory? Does it have to be all work and no play?"

O'Hare says that Claiborne's rules may be bent at times.In the past, when the enforcement was even more strict than it is now, some players seemed to rebel furiously against them and were involved in incidents with the police that embarrassed the university and infuriated Claiborne. As the coach has mellowed ever so slightly in this area, the players seem to have compromised by toning down their actions.

"I never liked the rules. They are so strict that you can't help going against them sometimes," said O'Hare. "If you just do things low key and don't let everybody in the world know about it, you can stay out of trouble. If you're caught, you'll suffer the consequences, so just don't get caught. I think guys are being more discreet. I think maybe they're getting smarter.

"When you're in the army, or on a team, or in any setup where you're spending most of your time with a big group of males, it's almost like a male-bonding situation, where the biggest, strongest, most macho type guy will emerge as the leader. It's kind of parallel to the situation in Streetcar Named Desire (a play O'Hare acted in). You spend so much time together that if you go out with a lot of guys, maybe there is a pressure to see who can hold the most liquor or who can pick up the most girls. There's so much competition."

O'Hare fights the temptation to let football consume him and makes it a point to deal with other kinds of students. He has acted in several campus palys and is the only male in his Women in Contemporary Society class.

"It's not so much a man's world anymore," said O'Hare. "Women are equals and we're going to be in competition with them, and there's no reason to be afraid of them. I like learing about what they're thinking these days."

Claiborne staunchly defends his stances and claims that he would dispense with his rigid rules if a player could prove to him that the rules were not beneficial. No player has ever succeeded. Few have tried.

"You can't talk to him about changing rules, about letting girls in your room. He's a man of principle, and I've grown to respect and understand him more over the years," said O'Hare. "He wants to be a father, the boss, the general. He's not one I would want to talk over personal problems with, because we have different beliefs, which I respect. I've never had words with him. And I was on the bench for four years. But I understand the situation I was in, playing behind guys (Bob Avellini, Mark Manges and Larry Dick) who were pro material.

"He's a hard man but I think he's fair. And he's not as bad as you'd think. I was really glad to see what he did the week before the Kentucky game when one of our young players disappeared for two days. He wanted to get rid of him, but he had a meeting with the seniors, and Charlie Johnson said that we know you have rules, and that you can't have people quitting and coming back, but everyone is different, and in this case, this player was having some problems and we'd like to see him back on the team. Claiborne could have gotten rid of him and he said he though about it.But he listened to what we had to say, and he said he didn't want to ruin anybody's life. He bends with the situation a little more."

One situation he has bent with has been in dealing with Maryland's tailback, Steve Atkins. If O'Hare is the heart of the scrappy Maryland team, then Atkins, the silent star, is its soul.

While O'Hare has been the player who is one of them, Atkins has walked alone. Equal parts man and mystery Atkins involves awe in his teammates with his magnificient abilities and his unspoken thoughts. His talent has seemed to be as much a burden as a blessing, as he has agonized for years trying to realize his potential - something that is coming to fruition this year.

"Steve is special. Steve is different. There is no getting around it," said O'Hare. "Some guys in the past have questioned why he doesn't have to run sprints like the rest of us. But this year he has taken so much more punishment than the rest of us and never complained. He has accepted his role as a leader and realized how much we depend on him.

"I can see it build him through the week and then when he gets on the field, he's a different person. He just turns it on. It seems to be the only time he is really happy. Steve's parents have never seen him play, and you can almost tell by looking at his face that he's had troubles. His face is almost forlorn."

The year that Ken Stabler won the Super Bowl for the Oakland Raiders, he said that one of the talents that separates a good quarterback from an average one is the ability to understand the inner workings of his teammates and treat each one differently. This is an ability O'Hare seems to possess, and it has helped him particularly in his dealings with Tice, the long-throwing sophomore who was expected to beat O'Hare for the starting job during summer practice.

"That was the most pressure I've ever had on me," said O'Hare. "I know that Mike is not happy, and I think he may have been upset by some of things I was quoted as saying in the newspapers after the first game, that he would have to wait his turn. With quarterbacks, there is a real ego thing. There can only be one.

"It's such a great position. The quarterback is on center stage. I like it."