The players had all gathered on the steps for the annual team picture, trading jokes and jibes. As Mike Tice walked over to take his place with the other seniors, a long-time team observer looked at him and pointed.

"I wonder," he said, "how Tice feels knowing this whole season depends on him."

As always happens in football, especially when The Quarterback is the subject, the man was exaggerating.

Still, the success of Maryland's football team and the individual success of Tice are locked together this year like Siamese twins.

The Terps have the running backs, they have the receivers, they have a superb defense. "The question, I guess," said Tice, "is me."

Not quite. The Terps also need to rebuild their offensive line. But Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne has proven over the years he can turn out offensive linemen the way General Motors turns out cars. But can Claiborne, quarterback coach Jerry Eisaman and Tice work together to make Tice a star and Maryland a big winner?

The most confident of the three is Eisaman. "Mike is so far ahead of last year right now, there's just no comparison," he said. "Last year he came into summer practice off shoulder surgery.He couldn't throw a ball more than 20 yards. His confidence was affected. He was shaky.

"Now, he's worked like crazy all summer long. He's in great shape physically and I think he's a lot more mature now than he was a year ago. I think he's learned a lot from last year's experience."

Tice was benched last season after the Terps dropped three straight games at midseason. Many of his teammates thought he was made a scapegoat for the losses. Tice handled the situation with grace, saying he would do anything to help the team.One loss later, he came off the bench against Duke, let the Terps to a 27-0 victory and completed 64 percent of his passes as the team won its last four games.

Tice always has been a confident player. In fact, he has been accused in the past of cockiness, an image he is now determined to shed.He will make no predictions about this season. He does not want to talk about what kind of future he might have in the pros.

He wants to talk to Villanova, Maryland's opening opponent. The week after Villanova, he'll talk about Vanderbilt. That's the way Claiborne wants it and this year, Tice wants to play the game Claiborne's way. It is simply a matter of practicality.

"We've got the making of a super team here," Tice said. "I've got complete confidence in our offensive line. I know they're going to do the job for us. All the other guys are proven. Everyone knows what they can do.

"I think I learned a lot of things last year, about football and about myself. I think I'm better equipped to handle all this now. Maybe last year I expected too much of myself. You don't just walk into the lineup after a shoulder operation with almost no experience and become a star. It takes time. You have to learn. I hope I'm ready this year."

Clairborne's main criticism of Tice -- aside from his openness with the press -- are in the areas of reading defenses and getting rid of the ball under pressure.

"Mike's just got to be more consistent," the coach said. "He's got to learn to recognize situations quicker and he's got to learn to pick up secondary receivers faster. He's working at it, though. He's improving."

In fairness to Tice, many of his early season problems last year were not his own doing. Maryland was -- and is -- a run-oriented team. The run is emphasized in practice and it is used in games until the moment when the pass becomes a necessity.

Maryland's veteran offensive line was as good at blocking for the run as any last season but not nearly as adept as pass blockers. Frequently Tice was throwing in situations where the opposition knew he had to pass, behind a line of less-than-great pass blockers. Few quarterbacks will succeed under such circumstances.

Those problems, Tice hopes, are behind him. This is his last shot. When he arrived in College Park, he was billed as "the quarterback who will beat Penn State." He still hasn't come close -- Maryland is 0-7 against Penn State under Claiborne, 1-24 lifetime -- and the Nittany Lions may only be the third toughest team on this year's schedule.

Claiborne is fond of saying that football is a team game, and Maryland appears to have the team this season.

And a quarterback, too.