The role of backup quarterback at Maryland has taken on increased significance the last two seasons because both years the No. 1 quarterback was injured during the season. So, it's no small decision that Coach Bobby Ross will make this weekend as the team begins preparation for the Sept. 7 opener at home against Penn Sate.

As of yesterday, the seventh practice of camp, there was no backup quarterback, although three players are in the running: senior Ken Vierra, sophomore Dan Henning and freshman Drew Komlo (in no special order). Ross said he probably won't decide until after Saturday's scrimmage.

"I'm starting to get an idea, but what's really important is what happens on Saturday," he said. "We're trying to learn as much as we can from these pass skeleton drills. But the bottom line, for the No. 2 guy, is how the team moves when he's in the lineup. And we'll be able to tell more about that in a scrimmage situation. I wouldn't want to go much longer than that because we have to get him ready for the first game."

Senior Stan Gelbaugh is entrenched as the starter primarily because he came in as the No. 2 man last year, in place of injured Frank Reich, and got Maryland off to its seven-game winning streak, which is third-longest in the nation entering this season. Reich, in 1983, twice had to substitute for injured Boomer Esiason, including during Maryland's victory over Pittsburgh.

In 1981, even Esiason began the fall as No. 3 on the depth chart but wound up starting 10 games that season. So the three candidates for this year's No. 2 spot are taking the challenge as seriously as recent history suggests they should.

"We all realize how important the No. 2 man has been to this team recently," Vierra said yesterday before Maryland's afternoon practice. "And for us to finish where we've been picked in preseason (top five by most publications), we need an excellent backup quarterback. The guy has got to be really big time."

Each of the three quarterbacks has a different strength. Henning, as Ross said, "has the smarts, the mechanics." Henning's football know-how comes at least in part because he has been so frequently exposed to the game through his father, Dan, coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Komlo, 6 feet 3, 210 pounds from DeMatha, is three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Vierra or Henning. "He has the physical tools," Ross said. And Komlo has improved considerably since spring practice.

Vierra, who was fifth in the nation in pass efficiency as a freshman at Utah, is the only one with any substantial game experience. "He's been under the gun," Ross said. "Experience helps, but their experience in our system is pretty equal." (All have been redshirted for a season; this is Vierra's fourth year at Maryland, Henning's third, Komlo's second.)

Henning, who worked out at the Falcons' camp for three weeks this summer, said says he cannot allow himself to be "overwhelmed" by the importance of the scrimmage, "or you'll forget what you're doing.

"Quarterbacks are always on stage anyway, more or less. We knew in the spring this would happen. So, we've really had three months to prepare for these seven to 10 days. It wasn't something that was just thrown at us."

Henning and Komlo, if not chosen for the No. 2 spot, at least have chances left. Vierra is down to his last.

He started at Utah his freshman year but wanted to play at a school with a stronger emphasis on passing. He said yesterday that, "I had no idea when I transferred that the quarterback situation here would be this tough. Looking back, I was 19 years old and I really didn't know.

"But I don't have any regrets at all. It would be nice, though, to play in my last year. I certainly don't want Stan to get hurt or anything. But I do want to be ready in case the team needs me. (Trying to become the No. 2) is the center of my complete concentration and all my energies right now." John Sorna, the Terrapins' sophomore backup right tackle, reinjured his foot (the fifth metatarsal) and will be sidelined approximately three weeks . . . Center David Amend, who had been restricted from practice because of a virus, was cleared to play. Team trainer J.J. Bush said that Amend, who will compete for the starting job, can work gradually into practice.

The argument is on again: Which team has the toughest schedule? Florida State, North Carolina, Mississippi, Miami, UCLA, Notre Dame and Clemson certainly are among the teams with the toughest. So is Maryland, again. This is the first time in four years that Maryland won't play the defending national champion. But the Terrapins do have at least eight opponents who could be in the top 20: Penn State, Boston College, West Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Miami, Clemson and Virginia.