Last season, Howard defensive coordinator Joe Taylor found little to smile about on the football field as his unit was beaten often for big plays.

Taylor, a D.C. native, was named head coach this spring and said his top priority was to improve the defense. The Bison haven't put on their helmets yet, but Taylor was flashing a big grin yesterday morning as he directed 83 eager players in opening-day drills at Howard Stadium.

"Oh, we'll be much better defensively. I'm very pleased with the players' physical condition and quickness. Especially their quickness," Taylor said. "A couple of 4.4s, some 4.5s and a lot of 4.6s (40-yard dash times). I was very concerned about that (quickness) initially, but I'm pleased with what I've seen so far. Those guys left (for the summer) looking like Hercules and came back very trim and in shape."

Taylor and his new coaching staff exhorted and encouraged the players through fifteen 350-yard runs. Many had excellent times, particularly end Arnold Tucker, who ran a 4.5 in the 40 and finished each 350 within the required 1:05.

"You'd think we were training for the Olympics," said one player, dripping perspiration. "I hope most of these guys did some running over the summer. If not . . . "

The most intense competition may be at quarterback, where junior Brian Sloan, on the strength of a better spring game, has a slight edge over senior Sandy Nichols, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's top passer.

"Competing with my best friend (Nichols) motivates me even more," said Sloan, singled out by Taylor as being in top condition. "I felt I had a good spring. I worked hard over the summer and I'm very comfortable with the new offense. We just have to execute."

Several players didn't practice. Nichols and starting offensive tackle Steve Alsbrooks recently completed summer school and their grades won't be computed until Monday. Linebacker Martin Brown, tailback Melvin Sutton and punter Jon Nicholaisen had permission to report late. Flanker Perkey Warner is considering signing a professional baseball contract. Guard Fred Robinson and linebacker Del Harris quit school.

On the other hand, Taylor said the return of defensive tackle Harold Gilky, who sat out last year for personal reasons, Brown and fullback Jeff Owens, both redshirted because of injuries, and cornerback Chris Jackson (academically ineligible) are big assets.

"It'll be a new day for us," said linebacker Robert Sellers, first team all-conference and a 4.0 student. "We weren't as bad as some scores indicated but you can't say much when you lose two games by a (combined) score of 112-3. This year we're quicker, more experienced and have better attitudes. We owe a few people."

Taylor said several freshmen could start. "I don't like to rely on freshmen, but when you run 4.4 and 4.5, well . . . you have to try them," he said. "There will be a lot of competition at several positions. The guys know they can't afford to slip."

Taylor will conduct two-a-day sessions until school begins on Aug. 22. Howard opens its season at Liberty Baptist on Sept. 3.