He has established himself as a solid performer on the Maryland football team, a two-letter man. Last Saturday he was the key player in the 19-0 victory at Clemson, with three interceptions and several tackles.

But four years ago Maryland wasn't sure it wanted to give Ralph Lary a scholarship.

"I remember Coach (Joe) Krivak called me and said they weren't going to give me a scholarship because they thought I was too slow," Lary said yesterday, smiling at the memory. "I was really upset. I visited Boston College and when I came up Coach Krivak called and said they'd changed their minds. I was thrilled."

Lary, who played high school football at Wootton in Rockville, has made Maryland's gamble pay off with his play as a free safety, especially Saturday against Clemson.

"The interceptions were great," said Lary. "But some of the hits I got were even better. That's what I like most about football, making a real good hit."

Lary, a redshirt junior who sat out his freshman year with a knee injury, played virtually the entire game on defense Saturday because John Baldante, with whom he normally shares the safety spot, had a slightly torn ligament in his right knee. Baldante was examined yesterday by Dr. Stanford Lavine and will be out two to three weeks.

In the meantime, Maryland's other knee-injury victim Saturday, starting tight end Eric Sievers, remains a mystery to Lavine. Initial tests have been inconclusive so Sievers will undergo further examination Thursday. Sievers is expected to be out at least as long as Baldante.

Maryland now is missing five starters, four on defense, including all three of its original defensive backs -- Baldante, Lloyd Burruss (broken leg) and Steve Trible, whose shoulder separation Saturday will keep him out at least two weeks.

There was one bit of good news for Terrapin Coach Jerry Claiborne: tailback Charlie Wysocki is the nation's leading rusher according to the official NCAA statistics released yesterday. Wysocki has 339 yards in two games -- a 169.5 yards a game average, half a yard better than Rocky Gillis of Iowa State.

Claiborne was more concerned yesterday with his team's health -- or lack of it -- as it prepares for Mississippi State Saturday. Still, Lary and other backups such as Sammy Johnson and Mike Corvino, who have stepped in and done well, have made Claiborne's job easier.

"We were concerned about Ralph's speed," Claiborne said, thinking back to the spring of 1976. "But Ralph was a hitter and we liked that. He was also an excellent student and, being local, we thought we should give him a chance. It's worked out very well for us."

Lary grew up in Rockville, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and in Hawaii before his father retired as a Marine lieutenant colonel and settled as a stockbroker in Potomac. It was in Hawaii that he began playing football, at age 11.

"We had this big backyard and my dad and I would spend hours and hours out there playing," Lary recalled. "He just threw me one pass after another. It was a great time for me."

In high school Lary played both offense and defense. Injured as a junior, he did not attract notice until his senior year, and his speed was still a concern to college recuiters.

"I run the 40 (yards) fast enough to play," Lary said when asked his time. "I do it with finesse, you know." He was grinning.

"Seriously, I try to make up what I lack with my head. I try to outthink people. I know I'm not that big or fast or quick or strong but I'm aggressive. This game is all in the mind."

An aeronautical engineering major, Lary has mind enough to have been named to the Atlantic Coast Conference honor roll the last two years. He is fascinated by space and hopes "to be some kind of space frontiersman. That may sound crazy but it really interests me."

Now, though, Lary is more concerned with the earth-bound game of football. It was his tackle of Clemson quarterback Billy Lott on fourth and two at the Maryland 29 that helped turn the tide Saturday.

"That was an awfully big play," said Claiborne. "Our whole team was sucked in when they made the fake to (tailback) Lester Brown. The only one who didn't go with it was Ralph Lary. He made a great tackle."

"That," said Lary, "is the kind of play I really love to make. It was an important play and I really got the quarterback. It was just the two of us, one on one."

Because the game was televised here, Lary was something of a hero when he went out on the town with friends Saturday night. That was a new feeling for him.

"I have to admit being in the limelight like that was fun," he said. "I know we have to get ready for Mississippi State now, and you can't live in the past, but I want to remember the feeling in our locker room right after the game. It was something special."

He was not the only Lary to suddenly receive attention because of Saturday's game.

"When my mom went to play tennis Sunday everyone came up to her and said they'd seen me on TV Saturday. Finally, she just got tired and told them, 'Oh yeah, he got all his talent from me.'

"It's true," Lary continued, laughing. "She does it all on finesse, too."

Claiborne has moved freshman wide receiver Mike Lewis to defensive back because of the injuries. He also has promoted two junior varsity defensive backs, Billy McFadden and Mike Collins, to the varsity . . . Claiborne said that when he returned home Saturday, his wife Faye told him, "Well, you've gotten all your breaks for the year. Now you have to play on your own the rest of the season."