Maryland place-kicker Jess Atkinson sat at his locker yesterday discussing the Terrapins' offense, which over a five-game winning streak has rolled up 458.4 yards and 37.6 points a game.

"I don't think these guys know any better," Atkinson said, "but they really think they can score when they want on anybody.

"And they take their cue from that guy," he said, pointing across the locker room at his roommate, quarterback Boomer Esiason.

Esiason stands 6 feet 4, weighs 210 pounds and with his piston-like left arm can seemingly throw a football through time zones.

Maryland ranks eighth nationally in scoring, at 34 points a game for seven games, and 13th in total offense, at 420 yards a game, largely because of Esiason's maturing at quarterback.

"Last year, he didn't know what was expected of him," said receiver Russell Davis. "But he has seasoned.

"Lots of times a running back or receiver coming into the game might bring the play into the huddle wrong by screwing up the numbers or something. Just like that, Boomer decodes the play and takes it from there. He knows the offense so well that he can tell whether the play is wrong by which hash mark we're on, or what situation we're in.

"And he's real cocky," Davis continued. "A lot of people might not understand this, but a quarterback can't be a nice, quiet guy. He's cocky without being obnoxious."

Said Atkinson: "He acts like he's been playing quarterback all four years."

Actually, Esiason has played only one full season. Last year, after Brent Dewitz was hurt, Esiason stepped in and set school records for passes thrown (242) and completed (122).

Some observers still felt he wasn't being utilized completely because of former coach Jerry Claiborne's conservative offense. When Bobby Ross was introduced as the new coach in January, and talked of his plans for a wide-open, pro-style offense, Esiason sat at the back of a crowded press conference and shook a clenched fist. "This is the greatest thing that's ever happened," he proclaimed.

The open-eyed enthusiasm and the spirit some call "cockiness" are just as visible in Esiason today, four days before Maryland visits No. 10-ranked North Carolina in a regionally-televised game for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I don't think Carolina's defense has seen a wide-open offense like ours," he said yesterday. "We're going to Chapel Hill with our 50-50 (ratio of run-to pass) philosophy and to do what we do best: put points on the board."

Last year, in Byrd Stadium, Carolina tackle Calvin Daniels put Esiason on the ground, rendering him unconscious. He later was found to have a sprained neck, but he was driven off the field in an ambulance as more than 40,000 watched in frightened silence.

Yesterday, Esiason called that experience "my fondest memory."

"As they were taking me off the field," he said, "the Carolina players came over and said, 'We're with you.' I got a letter from their coach (Dick Crum) that week and a lot of support from the students here.

"I realized that there's more to life than a lousy football game. I don't thank Carolina for that experience, but it's one that I'll always remember and cherish."

"He has assumed more authority since then," Atkinson said. "He's so relaxed, he talks to me during my field goals (Esiason is the holder). In one game, he had called the third down play to the wrong side of the field and it didn't work. If I couldn't score, he'd get in trouble. So while I'm lining up for the field goal, he looks back with a smirk and says, 'You better make this or I'll kick your butt.'

"He's real confident, but he always produces," Atkinson said. "He's vocal, but stops short of being a loudmouth. He gets excited out there. He's like a little kid after scoring a touchdown."

Another roommate, reserve quarterback Frank Reich, said Esiason's pursuasiveness is an attribute. "He likes to have his own way," said Reich. "If you don't agree with him, he'll try everything he can to get you to do what he wants. People let him talk them into things they don't want to do. He makes you believe, and I think that transfers from his personal life onto the field."

The results have been impressive.

Esiason has completed 56 percent of his passes and thrown for 13 touchdowns; he has had six interceptions. The other Maryland quarterbacks no longer call him "The World's Most Erratic Quarterback."

"Every Sunday night, I self-evaluate," Esiason said. "You've got to keep yourself from thinking you're the greatest who ever lined up at that position. So I sit down and criticize myself. It's the ounce of humility you have to have."

In this week's Associated Press top 20 poll, Maryland finished 21st . . . Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game in Chapel Hill has been sold out since August. The line began forming Monday for student tickets, which weren't issued until today . . . Terrapin tight end Ron Fazio practiced yesterday and is expected to play after missing the last two games with a contusion of the right thigh . . . Ross said he will decide later this week whether to replace punt-return man Mike Lewis, who fumbled a kick last week and one at West Virginia that led to a third-quarter field goal . . . Rod Elkins will start at quarterback for North Carolina; he has been unable to play the last three weeks because of damaged ligaments and cartilage in his left knee.