It is two hours before practice and seven or eight Maryland football players are sitting in the new lounge of the football complex, gathered around a big-screen color television, watching the soap opera, "Days of Our Lives."

Two more players are involved in a hotly contested pool game and four others are reading and listening to stereo music with headsets. All of them seem thoroughly relaxed, which has not always been the case with Maryland football players.

Team members say they now feel good about coming to practice, about their coach and about their football. They no longer are required to live in an athletic dormitory; they have roommates who are not athletes; seldom do they look over their shoulders out of fear a coach might be watching them have a good time.

"Guys are themselves," said John Tice, a fifth-year senior. "I know college is almost over for me now. But it's getting so good, I kinda wish I could stick around."

Almost everything about Maryland football has changed since Bobby Ross was hired as coach in January to replace Jerry Claiborne, who after 10 years took his rigid rules and conservative ways to Kentucky to rebuild that program the way he rebuilt Maryland's.

The players, almost unanimously, feel the change has been for the better. Ross, an upbeat man who is not opposed to change, has already earned a remarkable measure of respect from his players. It also helps to be 4-2 going into today's homecoming game against Duke at Byrd Stadium (1:30 p.m., WMAL-630), but the team was upbeat even after losing its first two games of the season.

"We don't feel anything is being held back from us," Tice said. "We know our program. It's ours and he shares it, and what he knows, with us. We can take pride in it."

"We believe he busts his tail for us to turn this thing around," said quarterback Boomer Esiason. "In return, we bust ours for him."

There is still discipline at Maryland. "You can't build a good program without law and order," Tice said. "But it's not hanging over our heads, threatening us. It feels good not to look over your shoulder all the time."

The players try very hard not to speak badly of Claiborne when they are asked to compare what was with what is. Still, whether they talk about curfews, practice, team meetings, game strategy or whatever, they seem to like the way it is.

"We still want to win just as much," Eubanks said. "But there's a difference between hating to lose and being scared to lose."

"We're on our own more now," said offensive captain Dave Pacella. "Coach Claiborne's rules never bothered me; he won with his style. But guys have responded positively to the new way. They're glad they can be trusted to be mature."

"We still have to show respect to the coaches," said senior Tim Whittie. "But he's treating us like we are men."

Said Esiason: "I don't worry as much as I used to. I used to walk around with the fear of doing something wrong. I can relax now. It even shows in my grades."

Asked about criticism by his former players, Claiborne said yesterday, "It doesn't bother me. A change is good sometimes. I hope they can go ahead and win the ACC title and go to a major bowl. I can't tell you how happy I am for them."

One of the things the players like most now is Ross' method of practicing. Practices aren't like scrimmages. Few injuries have occurred during practice and many players feel they are healthier on game days.

"It just doesn't pay to bang heads every day in practice," Tice said. "We're not that deep, anyway. We work hard in practice, very hard. But we don't have contact when it's not necessary. And Coach Ross has had a flexible attitude toward injuries. He's not pushing us out there if we feel we're hurt.

"Guys are 20 and 21 years old," Tice said. "They know their bodies by now. We've been in better shape this year than any team we've played, largely because Coach Ross isn't running us into the ground. Now we're rolling in the fourth quarter."

The players' satisfaction with the program has already been conveyed to potential recruits.

"Last year, I did a lot of recruiting for Coach Claiborne," Tice said. "You'd tell the recruits the positive things. But you kind of held back on some other stuff . . . Some guys approached it as 'either say good things, or say nothing at all.' We didn't say much.

"About the only thing you could say was, 'Oh, we went to all these bowl games.' Then you'd go get a big steak and not talk much. I told one quarterback recruit last year, 'If you don't want to block a lot, don't come here.'

"I got tired," Tice said. "I couldn't lie to the kid. His future was on the line."

Said Esiason, "When I was recruited, I thought guys were telling me everything. I thought I knew what it was like. I didn't. It was a dungeon. Now, I can honestly sit down with a kid and say, 'Come to Maryland. Here's what we have to offer and why. Here's what I like and respect about the program.' "

Ross says he's delighted the players feel so good about the program. But he also tries to avoid comparisons. He has tremendous respect for Claiborne, for whom he coached at Maryland in 1972.

"What was here before was very successful," Ross said. "It's a very natural thing for players -- people in general for that matter -- to say they are happy when things are going reasonably well.

"I do want them to relax and I want them to have and handle responsibility just as we (the coaches and administrators) do. That, to me, is no less than discipline. There was a time when I believed in being uptight, in keeping your game-face in place all day on Friday. But everybody goes through some change. I want everybody to be able to accept each other for what we are."