Joe Gilliam, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, will start for the Washington Federals tonight at 9 o'clock (ESPN, WMAL-630) at RFK Stadium against the Arizona Wranglers.

The Federals plan a fireworks display for halftime entertainment, but with a flamboyant passer like Gilliam, the aerial display may begin in the first quarter and end three hours later--for better or worse.

Federals Coach Ray Jauch had hoped that quarterback Mike Hohensee and running back Craig James would be able to return from injuries and play tonight. James, who has a mild compression fracture of the upper spine, will not return to the lineup for at least another week. Hohensee, who had a slightly fractured sternum, may suit up, but a case of the flu prevented him from practicing all week.

The Federals signed Gilliam three weeks ago; the Denver Gold had released him at the end of training camp. Denver Coach Red Miller surprised a number of coaches and general managers around the USFL in choosing Jeff Knapple and Kenny Johnson ahead of Gilliam.

Gilliam, 32, replaces Kim McQuilken, who completed 20 of 44 passes in last week's 34-3 loss to Philadelphia.

"We're going to start Joe because we haven't been getting the ball into the end zone, it's as simple as that," said Jauch. "Kim's done a fine job under the circumstances but we haven't put any points on the board."

When he played in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, Gilliam had a reputation for having a powerful throwing arm and an erratic personal life.

In 1974, Gilliam beat out Terry Bradshaw for the quarterback position. At midseason, Coach Chuck Noll went back to Bradshaw, and the Steelers went on to their first Super Bowl victory.

After a number of drug-related incidents and arrests, Gilliam was cut by the Steelers and, later, by the New Orleans Saints. Since then he has played semiprofessionally in Baltimore and New Orleans, and has worked as a stevedore. Gilliam says his personal troubles are over. In workouts, the tall, wiry quarterback's arm has been strong, if not always accurate.

"Joe's done a good job for us in practice since he got here," Jauch said. "You'll see a different type of play with him in there. He still can throw the ball pretty well."

Jauch said that Gilliam has been able to learn the team's offensive system, but most of the plays will be called from the sidelines.

Jauch has other changes planned. Billy Taylor, former New York Giants running back, will supplant Eric Robinson in the starting backfield with James Mayberry.

Lou Giammona, ex-Philadelphia Eagle signed last week, will return kicks. Ken Olson from Salisbury State College will replace Dana Moore as the place-kicker. Moore will continue to do the punting.

Tight end Phil DuBois (bruised right shoulder) and defensive back Mike Guess (strained right knee) will not play.

Arizona, a one-point favorite tonight with a 2-3 record to Washington's 1-4, has been a curiosity, having beaten two of the strongest teams in the USFL (Chicago, Los Angeles) and lost to three of the weakest (Birmingham, Oakland, New Jersey). The Wranglers were down by 17 points in the fourth quarter yet beat the Blitz, 30-29, on a field goal in the final second.

Alan Risher, a rookie from Louisiana State, has had great success passing to Jackie Flowers, the league's second-leading scorer behind Boston kicker Tim Mazzetti. Flowers, a rookie from Florida State, has six touchdowns, three last week against the Generals.

Among the more talented Wranglers are receiver Neil Balholm of Brigham Young and safety Tommy Wilcox of Alabama. Arizona is coached by Doug Shively, who spent nine NFL years as an assistant with Atlanta and New Orleans.

Of Arizona's penchant for losing to losing teams, Jauch said, "Let's just hope that continues."