Comes the question: can turtles fly?

The formerly landlocked Maryland Terrapins will be trying this season, committed to passing in the way presidents trumpet national policy -- until it doesn't work.

In truth, or "akshully" for those who didn't really mind the Jerry Claiborne past, Maryland has been doing a whole lot more than pitching passes in practice and ads lately. What we're seeing, less than two weeks before the season-opener, is a school determined to change its entire football face.

All at once.

Some of it has been intentional. The cerebral, ain't-got-no-respect promos by Rodney Dangerfield have been shredded in favor of sensuous Susan Anton. Sorry, Rodney, you lose again. Claiborne and Bobby Ross each feature offenses of the '80s, except that Jerry's was the 1880s.

Some of the image overhaul was luck. Good and bad, depending on whether you are watching the Terrapins or coaching them. For years, there has been an area-wide yawn over who Maryland played or, more correctly, didn't play. Until the Atlantic Coast Conference caught up to him, Claiborne seemed to have breathers every other week.

How can you expect to beat Penn State, area-wide logic insisted, if you work up to that game by playing a lot of Villanovas and Louisvilles? Penn Staters, of course, wondered aloud how Joe Paterno could hope to beat, say, Alabama in a major bowl by scheduling all those Boston Colleges and Navys.

Both schools are playing tougher schedules, or perhaps past patsies have gotten meaner.

Ross's breathing when he saw his first Maryland schedule might well have been short, spasmodic gulps. As in: We open with Penn State! Yep, and then play three other teams rated among the top 15 in many preseason polls -- North Carolina, Miami and Clemson -- back to back to back starting Oct. 30 in Chapel Hill.

When this schedule was pieced together over the years, nobody dared dream that an ACC school (Clemson) would be the defending national champion or that the Florida Miami would be much better than the one in Ohio that excites only athletic directors in search of splendid coaches.

Ross and his players are in this thing together, more partners than most coaches and players. He has given them more off-the-field responsibility, freedom from the athletic dorm mandated by Claiborne. The players who wanted that changed should want desperately for the new way to work.

The coach also is working to keep the special-teamers spirited by concentrating on them himself. If there is enough depth, Ross wants these kick units to be mostly manned by players rarely on the field otherwise. That helps build spirit and confidence, he reasons. And the head man caring enough to coach them should be wonderful motivation.

One of the things Ross appreciated after Saturday's scrimmage was that "nobody ever got down on himself, hung his head (when a play got botched). Everyone stayed in there and competed. We'll need that kind of attitude with our schedule."

Some of us who neither have a crystal ball nor scout as an avocation wonder how a pass-oriented Ross can replace a run-obsessed Claiborne without having some problems. The recruiting doesn't seem to be the same, although every coach wants strength, size, speed and a quarterback who thinks like Unitas and throws like Jurgensen.

Ross left Saturday's test pleased with his first-team offense.

"We got a lot of offense in," he said. "The execution, with the first bunch, really wasn't bad. A really productive scrimmage. This is what I enjoy about coaching."

He tilted his head back. The sun was bright, but the air had some bite. Byrd Stadium may never have seemed so lush. His regular quarterback, Norman (Boomer) Esiason, threw hard and accurately. Some of his recruits, especially runner Stan Bracey, played well.

Nobody was hurt badly.

"Intensity and enthusiasm were there," Ross said. "They appeared to be having a good time."

The coach added, still smiling:

"We're better than we were in the spring. Whether we're ready for Penn State (on the road) I don't know. But we do have some time."

After two miserable possessions, the first-team Terrapins flew 60 yards in nine plays. And with the sort of balance Ross covets: five runs and four passes, including a 16-yarder over the middle for the touchdown.

If Ross was confident after Saturday that he has the passer he needs for a sophisticated offense, he was less so about the catchers. There were about a half-dozen dropped passes, by receivers who know better.

Early arrivals for the scrum sensed Ross may be right, for in that prepractice passing phase the offense was splendid. But under no defensive-line pressure. There was one note about the receivers, that most of them seemed sure-handed. The jitters of an early, important test may have caused those later drops.

But then Ross had said he was pleased, not overjoyed.