Maryland football coach Jerry Claiborne is not a man given to making direct statements. But when he looks over his team's 1979 schedule he does say one thing without hesitation:
"We're going to find out about our football team very quickly this year."
Claiborne expects to find out how good his Terrapins are early, beacuse in the first six weeks of the season Maryland plays its three crucial games -- Clemson, North Carolina State and Penn State.
The Clemson and N.C. State games will probably determine whether Maryland can recapture the Atlantic Coast Conference championship it owned from 1974 through 1976. And, as always, the Penn State game can make or break any Maryland season, especially since the Terps are 0-6 against the Nittany Lions in Claiborne's seven years at College Park.
Claiborne, of course, refuses to pinpoint any one game or group of games as any more crucial than others. "Right now, our big worry is Villanova," he said.
Villanova will undoubtedly cease being a concern shortly after kickoff on Sept. 8 in Byrd Stadium. Then Claiborne and company can turn their full attention to playing defending conference champion Clemson -- in Death Valley -- Mississippi State, Kentucky, Penn State and this season's ACC favorite, N.C. State, in consecutive weeks.
Everyone involved with the Maryland program insists that regaining the ACC championship is the team's primary goal, even ahead of receiving a seventh straight bowl bid.
"The first thing for all of us this year is winning the league," said Mike Tice, slated to be the starting quarterback if he can remain healthy. "We felt like we should have won it last year. Now we want it back. That's the number one priority."
If the Terps are to regain the title that they lost to North Carolina in 1977 and which was won by Clemson a year ago, Tice must come through. A 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior from Long Island, N.Y., Tice carried a can't-miss tag with him when he arrived at Maryland in 1977 because of his size and rifle-like arm.
But after watching Tim O'Hare from the bench last season and having shoulder surgery for a separation after spring practice, Tice was still less than 100 percent when summer practice began and is still a question mark.
Claiborne refuses to admit any concern about the quarterbacking situation. "Last year people said we had no experience at quarterback and look what O'Hare did," he said.
"If Tice can't play, then we'll go with Bob Milkovich. If Milkovich can't play, we'll go with Brent Dewitz. If he can't do it, we'll go with a freshman. We'll just play with what we have. That's all you can do."
Claiborne is hoping he'll have a healthy Tice who will play up to his potential.
Tice's role will be especially important because the rest of the backfield is equally short on experience. The only running back who has seen considerable playing time was George Scott, who flunked out of school Tuesday.
With Scott gone, Charlie Wysocki, the bubbly sophomore, will be the starting tailback. Wysocki played well in his brief appearance last season but must overcome a tendency toward fumbling to be effective.
Fullback, which has always been largely a blocker's spot in the Claiborne system, will be manned by Jeff Rodenberger and Rick Fasano. Both are inexperienced and are coming off injuries, Rodenberger a broken leg, Fasano a bad knee.
If Tice can get his arm into top form, he will have good receivers in Jan Carinci and Eric Seivers. Both had good junior years and should see the ball more often with Dean Richards gone.
But in the long run the Terps will rise or fall largely on the play of their lines. Claiborne has confidence in the veteran front line offensively but is worried about depth there, because the second string has little experience. The same is true on defense where Marlin Van Horn is an anchor at defensive guard and Jimmy Shaffer has been a three-year starter at end.
"We have got to hope everyone stays healthy on the lines," Claiborne said. "You have to figure there are going to be injuries up there because there always are. That's why it's important that we get ourselves feeling confident two-deep at every position.
Claiborne is especially concerned about replacing the large holes left on the defensive line by the graduation of Bruce Palmer, Charlie Johnson and Brad Muffler.
The linebacking is solid with Darnell Dailey and Brian Matera returning, although the Terps will miss Neal Olkewicz.
Until Wednesday, when three-year starter Lloyd Burruss suffered a broken bone in his right leg, the defensive secondary shaped up as probably the strongest part of the team with Burruss, Steve Trimble and Ralph Lary back. Sammy Johnson, Burruss' replacement has considerable experience, however.
Burruss is expected to miss six to eight weeks. He was a standout last season as both a kick returner and field-goal blocker. So, the special teams, long a Claiborne source of pride, will lean even more heavily on the leg of Dale Castro, who will handle all the placekicking and all the punting with Ed Loncar gone.
Overall there are a number of large question marks: Tice, the running backs and the depth. But a year ago there were also major questions -- quarterback, Steve Atkins' knee and a young secondary. The Terps were 9-3.
The past seven seasons they have finished no worse than 8-4 and with Villanova, Louisville, Virginia, Duke and Wake Forest on the schedule that mark should remain intact this year.
But to go beyond that, to recapture the ACC title and to get to a bowl better than the Garden State or the Hall of Fame Classic, the answers to the question marks must appear quickly.
"We won't really know anything about ourselves until the shooting starts on Sept. 8," Claiborne said.
Actually, he won't know anything until a week later. But from that point on, Claiborne will find out a lot in a hurry.