The NCAA is still days away from crowning its 1978-1979 basketball champion, and major league baseball teams are still working out winter kinks in warm sections of the United States. So, naturally, it's time for the colleges to unpack their football gear.

Navy, which had its best season in 15 years in 1978, opens its three-week spring practice session Tuesday. Virginia starts March 25, Howard the 26th and Maryland the 27th.

"It's going to be a long, tough spring," said Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne. "We're going to have to work hard."

The Terrapins, 9-3 last year and a 42-0 loser to Texas in the Sun Bowl, will have to replace eight starters, including tailbacks Steve Atkins and Alvin Maddox, quarterback Tim O'Hare and defensive linemen Charlie Johnson and Bruce Palmer.

"We lost all of our big firepower, our runners, our thrower, our passcatchers and our placekicker (Ed Loncar), said Claiborne. "We hope our freshman recruits can help but we have to depend on our returnees first."

Maryland will have a good nucleus of veterans to build around. George Scott, who rushed for 894 yards two years ago and missed last season with a leg injury, will be back along with tailback Charlie Wysocki, ends Eric Sievers and Jan Carinci, defensive end Jim Shaffer and defensive backs Lloyd Burruss and Steve Trimble.

In addition, the Terps recruited well.Mark Duda, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tackle from Plymouth, Pa.; Bill Pugh, a 6-4, 205-pound defensive end from Steelton, Pa., were listed among the "100 outstanding high school prospects for 1979."

Area prep stars signed by Maryland included Gaithersburg tackle Jim Joyce, De Matha tackle Paul Gentzel, Chopticon end Spencer Scriber, Glen Burnie Linebacker Louis Weeks and Blair tackle George Saah.

"I feel we had a good recruiting year," said Claiborne.

"I'm pround of the kids we signed."

The Cavaliers, a dismal 2-9 last year, return 16 starters. They also signed 25 high school seniors to letters of intent.

Virginia doubled its offensive output from its 1977 season and the defensive unit performed well in stretches.

Coach Dick Bestwick, beginning his fourth year, will look to tight end Mike Newhall (12 catches for 184 yards); running backs Tom Vigorito and Greg Taylor, who combined for 1,331 yards last year, and strong safety Tony Blount to provide leadership-and experience.

Freshmen recruits Reggie Woods of Hampton, Ron Booker of Fork Union, Rickey Callinder of Lynchburg and Eric Fears of Kennedy High in Silver Spring could start.

Navy Coach George Welsh will attempt to rebuild the passing attack that carried the Mids to a 9-3 record, including a 23-16 victory over Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. Navy finished as the nation's 17th-ranked team.

"We will be looking for a big-play man," said Welsh, who will lose quarterback Bob Leszczynski, receiver-kick returner Phil McConkey and kicker Bob Tata via graduation."We still have more depth and more athletes now and more people with experience. But we are still uncertain of our strength at quarterback because the heir-apparent there, Bob Powers, has not been tested under pressure."

Welsh will be hard-pressed to replace Tata, McConkey and Leszczykski, who together accounted for 26 school records.

Navy's running game should be stong, with Steve Callahan, Mike Sherlock, Larry Klawinski, Kevin Tolbert and freshman signees Duane Flowers of Wootton High School and Ed Mayers from Pemburton, M.J.

All-America honorable mention Charlie Thornton, an end, and safety Greg Milo are back to anchor Navy's defense, which was ranked 13th in the country and had four shutouts.

Howard will operate under a new coach, Floyd Keith. The former Colorado assistant will welcome 53 lettermen, 16 of whom started last season. Keith, who took over the job two months ago, signed 21 freshmen to letters of intent, despite the late start in the recruiting chase.

"I can't release the names of the players until next week but we got some good athletes, a few who can play several positions," said Keith. "We signed more (12) on defense because we lost more starters over there."

Keith also said he was installing a new offense and defense and that every position is wide open.

"I'm opening everything up. We'll use a multiple offense and probably a '50' defense and we'll have to see how the personnel adjusts to that," said Keith. "Some people could be switched."

Howard finished 4-6 a year ago, its worst season in seven years.