Rarely has there been such excitement about football season at Maryland.

There is the promise of a new offense and the challenge of the sixth most difficult schedule in the nation.

"We're going to play with some abandon, physically and strategically," says Bobby Ross, the new coach. "We're not going to sit back and let things happen. I want us to be aggressive. We'll make it fun."

The fun starts Saturday when the Terrapins play Penn State, a team they have beaten once in 26 tries. The next week, Maryland travels to West Virginia, another bowl team. A tortuous three-week stretch beginning Oct. 30 has Maryland playing North Carolina, Miami (Fla.) and Clemson.

"I'm not worried right now about the schedule hiding possible improvement," Ross said, "but I might be at the end of the season. We know we have a tough schedule. We could be intimidated by it or we could look at it as an opportunity to be really good."

Usually in College Park, it's not enough to be just good. Under Jerry Claiborne, the Terrapins were good, but they were predictable. Some called them boring.

Ross says his play book is as colorful as the team's new red helmets.

"On offense, we're involving everybody," Ross said. "You have six skilled people (quarterback, two receivers, two running backs and a tight end) and we want to attack the defense with these people in every phase -- running, receiving and blocking."

On defense, there won't be a major change. Ross, a defensive assistant under Claiborne in 1972, will retain but modify the wide-tackle-six alignment. "We've restructured some of the some responsibilities for the linebackers, which should improve our pass coverage," Ross said.

Ross, 45, has worked 15 hours a day this summer. He knows the program had slipped and he knows how much work is needed to be even moderately successful.

"The strong points of the team," Ross says, "are the defensive line and place-kicking. That's the starting point for us." Jesse Atkinson, who was not on the roster this time last year, had four field goals of 40 yards or longer last year as a walk-on. The defensive line, featuring seniors Gurnest Brown and Mike Corvino, could be the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"We have a good starting quarterback in Boomer Esiason," Ross said.The linebackers fall into the good catagory as long as they're healthy. The first three -- Joe Wilkins, Mike Muller and Eric Wilson -- can be very good. One injury to that group, however, could be disastrous.

The offensive line falls into the "not bad" catagory, Ross said. Dave Pacella, a three-year letterman at tackle, and center Vince Tomasetti will need help from the sophomores.

The receivers, Ross says, "have potential but haven't shown much production." The most productive last year was senior tight end John Tice, who caught 31 passes. Russell Davis (26 receptions last year) and Mike Lewis (24 catches) are the deep threats.

For the first time in many years, running back is a question mark. John Nash and Willie Joyner were very good at times last year, in relief of the oft-injured Charlie Wysocki. But Nash, who suffers from asthma, missed some early practice time with an ulcer. Vernon Carter, a sophomore, will compete for the starting spot, and transfer Troy Island could get playing time.

Ross said the team is "woefully weak in depth" at every position and weak in speed among the skilled positons, like running back, receiver, linebacker and defensive back.

It may come as a surprise to some that Ross didn't list the defensive backs in the "woefully weak" catagory. Teams averaged 42 passes and 265 yards per game against Maryland last year. "I think in some ways the defensive backs took a bad rap," Ross said. "They'll be better, if for no other reason than everybody is back."