They say we're the smartest players in the conference," said University of Virginia defensive end Steve Potter. "But our biggest troubles are in our minds.

"This year, we lack desire. That's the way I feel."

There is a new wave of discontent at UVA, and Coach Dick Bestwick is surviving it with a smile.

The overwhelming gripe about the program handicapped by high academic standards used to be, " we can't possibly compete." Now they're saying that, with some breaks and a little more consistency, this UVA team, which is 2-6, could have been 6-2. Everyone's mad about it so Bestwick is glad.

"This season has been disappointing in the sense that our record is not better," said Bestwick. "But it's encouraging when you consider that three years ago, we were the laughing stock of the country. It's encouraging that now, our fans and our coaches and our players are disappointed that we didn't beat West Virginia, felt we could have and should have won. Obviously, we've made some progress."

Talent is not exactly stockpiled in Charlottesville, and when 13th-ranked Maryland (8-1) visits tomorrow, an easy Terrapin victory is probably in store.

But the Cavalier team that has started six quarter-backs in the past 2 1/2 season is stutterstepping towards respectability.

"Last year, we didn't even have an offense," said tight end Mike Newhall.

"We're 100 percent better this year. There's no comparison."

Wholesale changes on offense have brought this once pitiful Cavs 12 touchdowns and 91 points. They had only six touchdowns and 56 points last year.

Flanker Greg Taylor has taken his 9.7 speed to the backfield, and kick-return specialist Mickey Spady has been converted into a starting veer quarterback. Add leading rusher Tom Vogorito, recovered from last year's injuries, and the Cavs have 1,344 net yards rushing, compared with the 1,082 squeezed from last year's I formation.

The demolition of the I relegated quarterback Chip MarK, the starter in last season's final six games, to a reserve role, and he has come off the bench as a throwing specialist to put the Cavs back in some games. Last year's othe quarterback, Bryan Shumock, now starts at defensive back.

Mark, a senior, calls his switch "disheartening," but as a psychology major he finds the birth of a UVA offense uplifting.

"We really could be 6-2," said Mark. "The only games we really weren't in were Clemson - they went wild on us - and Navy. Navy took us to the hoop.

"The ultimate judgment it made on the won-lost record, but there are a lot of intangibles that show we have improved.

"People say, how can it be fun to play at UVA and get your fannies kicked? But I'm glad I came here. My degree will mean something, and I'm proud of my teammates for the stuff they've been through. This is a close team. Adversity breeds closeness."

In potter, adversity breeds impatience. Asked how things are going, Potter replied, "Well, we're having bad year. Another one.

"I've been excited going into the season for three years and every year comes out the same - bad.

"We should be 6-2 right now. They say we're young but how can that be true when they've been saying that for three years? We're supposed to be the smartest school in the league - that's what the coaches say - but our problems boil down to mental mistakes. It takes intelligence to play good ball but it takes desire, too, and that's what we lack.

"I get very emotional - maybe that's bad in a way - but last week against West Virginia (which best Virginia, (20-17), I went around in the huddle and looked each player square in the eye and said, 'Let's get to it.' Against VPI we were up (UVA won, 17-7) but last week the players looked at me like I was crazy. It hurt.

"We were so loose it was ridiculous. Even I was too loose. For the first time in my college career, I ate breakfast before the game. Steak, eggs and pancakes. Ate it all."

Newhall admits that, "Really, we don't have any motivation. I mean it's not like we're playing for a title or a bowl or something. We're just playing the best we can."

And Bestwick admits that his team's biggest problem this year is inconsistency.

"It just gets so frustrating," said Potter. "VVA is known as the white meat - the easy pickings from the carcass. I hate being known as the scrap of the league, the worst of the conference. I hate the idea that other teams come in here expecting to have an easy game.

"Maryland will probably try to come in here and run up the score so they can impress the bowl people. They're bigger and faster than we are and they'll probably try to intimidate us. That should be reason enough to try and show them that we're not the white meat of the conference."

Potter admits that this reason is more bearable. In last year's 1-10 affair, an injury turned him into a spectator for some the worst shows he's ever seen.

"I watched and I cried," said Potter. "It was sad."

Potter and Newhall agreed that the most difficult part of playing for a losing team is practicing.

"I hate practice. I can't stand it," said Potter.I'll complain the whole time. That's the only way to get though it. But I feel I give 100 percent in practice. In games I give 110."

To Potter, giving 110 percent means doing more than what is expected, and he certainly has some unusual twists to his game.

"I read quarterbacks' lips a lot," said Potter. "I caught six plays last week. One time I saw the quarterback call 22 and they passed, so the next time he called 22, I yelled, 'pass,' and the center looked at me, real flustered.

"They passed and completed it for 50 yards. It broke my heart. I can call the play and we still can't stop it."

There are not many highlights in a Virginia football season. Punter Russ Henderson, who has broken Ray Guy's NCAA career record for punts of more than 50 yards (65), says the team is not even repected by the students.

"People look down on us, say we're dumb," said Henderson. "That's another reason we're so tight with each other. If we weren't, we wouldn't have anyone to pal around with."

For many players, the promise of next year is the reward on the horizon.

"If we come out and be respectable against Maryland, maybe it'll set the tone for next year," said Potter. "Here I am, saying the same old thing - next year. We shouldn't talk so much about next year. That's one of the things I've complained about."