While most of America's college football players are still wiping the chalk off their hands -- learning new plays and new positions in that annual rite known as spring football -- Maryland is already polishing its material.

"The coaches are stressing the schedule," quarterback Stan Gelbaugh said. "We have to be ready real early or we could be in trouble. I can't remember a spring when we've had so much of the offense in. And I can't remember when we've run it so well."

Five good reasons for all this unseasonably hard work are nonleague opponents Penn State, Boston College, West Virginia, Michigan and Miami, not to mention tough ACC opponents North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia, all of whom are on next season's agenda.

When the spring session ends with Saturday's annual Red-White game (2 p.m. in Byrd Stadium), almost all of what is expected to be a high-powered offense will be in place, and the defense could be the toughest Coach Bobby Ross has had at Maryland. Even the cautious Ross says so.

"It's perhaps the best defensive unit since I've been here," he said. "We can really run. We're ahead of ourselves. We're about 20 percent ahead of where we were last year."

Only three offensive starters and two defensive starters were lost after last season, but they left potentially huge gaps. On offense, quarterback Frank Reich, receiver Greg Hill and center Kevin Glover are gone. On defense, linebacker Eric Wilson, Maryland's all-time leading tackler, and cornerback Bob Gunderman are no longer there.

Any worries about losing Reich have long since dissipated, because the leader of the race toward September is Gelbaugh. Ross has had to do everything but tape Gelbaugh's arm to his side to keep him from getting ahead of schedule.

"He's got a real grasp of the offense," Ross said. "We've had to tell him to cool it. He's calling the audibles all the time."

The habit has become almost comical. While Ross is trying to get a look at his runners, Gelbaugh is calling deep patterns at the line.

"When the defense gives me something, I like to take it," Gelbaugh said. "I keep wanting to open up. Sometimes, the coaches have to say, 'Hey, let's just get out of the huddle and see if we can block for the run, okay?' "

When Reich separated a shoulder last season, Gelbaugh threw for 1,123 yards and five touchdowns, and he adds a new dimension with speed that could make him even more dangerous than his predecessor. But while he is a sprint-out specialist, this spring he has been staying in the pocket.

"We already know I'm good at the sprint out and the play action," he said. "What I need to get good at is dropping back and throwing downfield . . . "

Last season, the Terrapins relied on Reich's passing a little more than they would have liked and faltered in the first two games, losing to Syracuse and Vanderbilt. Fullback Rick Badanjek and halfbacks Alvin Blount and Tommy Neal are all back, and Ross would like to see more of a 50-50 run-pass proposition and a better early start.

"We started slow last year. The passing kept us in it early," Blount said. "In the later half of the season, the run started setting up the pass. We need to get it started earlier."

One of the most severe losses was wide receiver Hill, the designated deep threat with a talent for evading defenses. To compensate, Ross has moved Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof to flanker from split end, with Eric Holder and Sean Sullivan running the shorter patterns.

"He's got some of that evade that Hill had," Ross said of Abdur-Ra'oof. "Moving him to the wide field hopefully gives us one or two more big plays. Give him more room to work, and if he makes one guy miss, it's a touchdown."

The Terrapins will open at home with Penn State, play Boston College on the road and then meet West Virginia at Byrd Stadium. One indication of how serious all this talk is: when others leave for the beach, about 50 Terrapins voluntarily will be staying behind for summer school and workouts.

"A lot more guys are going to be around. Everything is falling right into place," Blount said. "We just have to get it going from Game 1. We have to get it going now so we'll be ready. We're juiced."