When Joe Taylor opens his first football camp as coach of Howard University Thursday, he will be looking at a team that has drastically improved its strength and quickness through offseason weight training.

Taylor said yesterday his primary concern is "making sure we're physically competitive for four quarters, rather than three quarters," referring to Howard's poor physical condition last season.

Opening camp today, in Charlottesville, are the first-year players of the University of Virginia, which could have the most improved team in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season; upperclassmen begin on Saturday. Coach George Welsh said recently he may have to depend on many of those first-year players to provide immediate backup help at several positions.

Maryland, ranked in the top 20 in almost all preseason polls, opens camp with freshmen on Saturday and begins two-a-day workouts on Aug. 19 when the upperclassmen report. And at Navy, Coach Gary Tranquill will open workouts for first-year players on Friday. The veterans, including preseason all-America linebacker Andy Ponseigo, begin practicing Aug. 16.

Taylor, who replaces Floyd Keith at Howard, will begin his first year with major questions about the offensive line, high hopes for inexperienced receivers, an incredible number of quality running backs and the confidence that accompanies the return of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's leading quarterback, Sandy Nichols.

Taylor said he expects several of those backs have benefited from the weight training program, instituted in February, to the point of increasing their speed in the 40-yard dash from 4.65 to 4.5 seconds. One of the players who sat out last season because of disagreements with Keith--defensive tackle Harold Gilkey--is expected to rejoin the team.

In Charlottesville, Welsh is preoccupied with defense. "We have a goal of winning six games," he said. "I don't think that's an unrealistic goal for us. But we need to be an improved defensive team; that's the key for us. In too many games last year (Virginia was 2-9), we gave up too many yards and too many points. We have the talent to be better defensively."

In Annapolis, Tranquill needs only one linebacker and a reserve defensive back or two to complete what could be an outstanding defense. Tranquill's primary concern will be the development of Ricky Williamson, the leading candidate to start at quarterback.

Coach Bobby Ross doesn't open camp at Maryland until Saturday, but his 1983 team already has a burden--expectations. The Terrapins, who begin full workouts twice a day Aug. 19, are ranked as high as 13th in the nation in some preseason polls.

"Those expectations are probably a bit too optimistic," said Ross, who realizes that in the next four weeks, he must find replacements for four linemen who made up the nation's third-best defense against the run last year. Only two experienced lineman--Tyrone Furman and Peter Koch--return.

Elsewhere, sophomore Rick Badanjek will start camp as the utility back, replacing John Nash, Ross said. Joe Kraus, who transferred a year ago from Penn State, will be eligible and a focal point in what should be a strong defensive secondary.