The topic of discussion was Virginia football, and how the Cavaliers may have gone to the Peach Bowl last season, but it might be foolhardy to call them, say, a sure-thing top 20 team until they improve on some things.

At which point, fullback Antonio Rice, a whimsical fellow formerly of Washington, D.C.'s McKinley High School, broke off his discussion of why he won't be getting a mohawk haircut ever again and shook his head. "Improve?" he said. "I thought we were perfect."

Quarterback Don Majkowski, who has grown comfortable with his position since he emerged as a startling talent last season, said what he thought the Cavaliers needed to stay in the top 20 was more running backs. That remark was for the benefit of Rice, who broke up and said if they could just get a decent passing percentage they might be okay.

Linebacker Charles McDaniel sauntered up and smiled and said what the Cavaliers are is "up and coming. Like Piedmont Airlines." But McDaniel is a straight-thinking sort, and after a minute he frowned and looked serious and said, "But we had better find a defense or the Virginia football team of 1985 is in serious trouble."

A moment later tailback Howard Petty strolled by giggling, but when he heard what McDaniel had to say he also frowned, and then asked softly, "He said that?"

The mention of defense had a sobering effect today on the Cavaliers, who otherwise had a right to be giddy as they held their annual media day and prepared to open football practice.

The Peach Bowl champions are seeking their third straight winning season, a major achievement at a school where even a break-even record could make a Thomas Jefferson statue nod approvingly.

But while defense was not as appealing a subject to the Cavaliers as their preseason top 20 ranking and an offense that shows enormous possibility, it was their main concern.

Whether the Cavaliers can come up with a good defense will determine how close they are to Sports Illustrated magazine's evaluation, which has them at No. 20 after last year's 8-2-2 record and victory over Purdue in their first postseason appearance.

A year ago, the Cavaliers had a heralded, experienced defense and a young, worrisome offense.

Majkowski, Rice, Petty, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award candidate Jim Dombrowski at tackle and 1984 ACC rookie of the year receiver John Ford return to make up an offense that could challenge Maryland as the most potent in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But seven defensive starters from last year's team are gone.

It is not the type of team that appeals to the notoriously conservative George Welsh, two-time ACC Coach of the Year.

"I don't like high-scoring games," he said. "But I think I may have to learn to."

Of the seven players lost, three were starting defensive interior linemen. The other four made up the secondary. The losses entail a major rebuilding job that will take up most of fall practices.

"In some ways, I felt better last year," Welsh said. "Then I thought we would be a good defense. If you have a good defense you're always going to be in the game. This year we're the opposite, and that means a lot of ifs."

The primary concern is the down linemen, where two all-ACC players are gone. All-conference nose guard David Bond will have to be replaced by either senior Anthony Bolling or junior Scott Urch. The latter has more game experience, with nine appearances last year. Bolling had five.

At tackle, Ron Mattes was all-conference and honorable mention all-America. The prospects to replace him and Tom Kilgannon are senior Scott Matheson, a key reserve for three years, and junior Rayotis Perkins, who made spot appearances in 10 games.

The entire defensive backfield is gone, including third team all-America strong safety Lester Lyles. His potential replacements are transplanted junior Kevin Ferguson or redshirt freshman Brian Bodison. If Ferguson's name sounds familiar, it is because he started the first five games last season at quarterback.

Those heavy losses have the normally staid Welsh thinking of opening up his offense. "We'd like to throw more," he said. It also makes McDaniel, one of the few veterans on defense, beg for time and some extra points from the offense.

"We're going to need help until the first quarter of the season," McDaniel said. "We're going to give up some points. We were hoping to jell in spring practice, but we didn't. We came out just average. We still have plenty of time. But it's convenient that we have the offense we do."

It should be noted, however, that Welsh has a way of finding things. Despite the concern offensively last season, the Cavaliers came up with not only a serviceable offense, but a fine one.

Majkowski came out of hiding in the sixth game of the season to complete 83 of 168 passes for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns. He also rushed for 305 yards and five touchdowns.

Petty and Barry Word alternated at tailback and combined for 1,414 yards and 14 touchdowns. Rice is the projected starter at fullback. At flanker, sophomore Ford is a deep threat who caught 19 passes for 545 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman.

"The defense will be better than people think," Majkowski said. "The names are there, you just haven't heard them yet. Maybe we'll have to score more points to get them a couple of games of experience. Whatever it takes, we'll do it."