On the first day of spring practice at Virginia, seniors with no further eligibility gamboled on the sideline. A photographer walked onto the field in search of subjects. Then, suddenly, the Cavaliers' new coach, George Welsh, ordered all supernumeraries to depart.

"My practices are my classroom sessions," Welsh said. "Professors don't allow visitors in their classrooms and I don't want visitors creating distractions here."

At Navy, Welsh had many problems, but discipline was not one of them. If classroom requirements forced short practice sessions, there was no lollygagging on the field. At Virginia, Welsh's biggest problem is to get players, other students and fans to take the football program -- which has had only one winning season in the last 13 and hit a 1-10 low last year -- seriously.

Welsh did not move to Charlottesville from Annapolis without a strong idea that he could change things. Where he felt a 9-2 season was maximum efficiency at Navy, he refuses to concede that 11-0 is an impossibility at Virginia.

"I think we can be better than Navy," Welsh said. "That's one of the reasons I took the job. We can compete with Clemson and Carolina each year. And if we can compete with them, we can play teams like Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Notre Dame. I'd like to see one of them on our schedule each year."

That talk, of course, is for the future. This season Virginia's nonconference opponents are Navy, James Madison, VMI and Virginia Tech, and none of them can be considered an easy day for the players Welsh surveyed at spring practice.

"We won't win many games the way we were in the spring," Welsh said. "But we spent the whole spring putting in our system and we didn't spend any time on teamwork or value judgments. We have to change some things and we're a little thin on defense.

"I think it will take three years to turn things around. There will have to be a new attitude. But it can be done. We should be able to pick up our recruiting, particularly here in Virginia. We need to turn around some of the kids who went somewhere else. Kids like Kenny Easley and Lawrence Taylor would have made a big difference here.

"For this season I don't have a lot of goals, other than to make as much progress as possible. But I think we can be better and I think we have a reasonable chance of attaining a winning season."

At Navy, Welsh won with outstanding defense. This season, at least, he must do it with offense. Twenty of the top 22 offensive players return, plus transfer quarterback Wayne Schuchts. On defense, however, only end Ed Reynolds is back among the front seven starters. The biggest problem is at linebacker, where all three regulars are gone, including bulwark Keith Lee.

Schuchts, who threw for 1,556 yards as a Colgate sophomore, faced a tough job trying to win the starting job from sophomore Mike Eck, a spring standout, and Gordie Whitehead, the starter much of 1981 who suffered a rotator cuff injury while playing baseball for the Cavaliers.

Center Grant Scott will not be ready for the season opener at Navy because of a broken foot suffered playing basketball this summer, so Welsh may be forced to rule out all sports but football to keep his team healthy.

Although the opener has important personal connotations for Welsh and his former players at Annapolis, he is far more concerned with establishing his system on a sound basis. If the game bears the nature of a crusade for some Midshipmen, Welsh regards it more as an early test of where he is.

"It is not the first time I've coached against Navy," said Welsh, a longtime Penn State assistant. "It is a game for the players, anyway, and this will be just one game out of 11. We want to win, but I'm not going to make a big deal out of it."