The rebuilding phase is over. It is time to find out if the Howard University football team can tower over the skyline.

The Bison, who finished last season with seven straight victories after a 1-3 start, were brimming with optimism at yesterday's media day.

Coach Willie Jeffries has fielded 2-8, 4-7 and 8-3 teams his first three seasons at Howard, and now the hope is that he can complete the resurrection -- as he did with a similarly down-trodden program at South Carolina State -- by producing a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion.

"There are no excuses this time," he said.

This season, Howard returns 10 starters on an offense that averaged 411 yards and 32 points per game. The defense, which allowed an average of only 11.6 points during its last seven games, returns nine starters. In addition, senior Eric Moore, a 6-foot-1, 304-pound all-MEAC guard, has been moved from the offensive line to defensive tackle in an effort to shore up the team's weakest unit.

The Bison are the only current MEAC school never to have won the league title.

With its sudden status as a favorite -- the team was picked to finish first in a recent vote of the MEAC coaches -- it will no longer be able to catch anyone by surprise. Senior tailback Harvey Reed, who rushed for 1,386 yards and 18 touchdowns, and junior quarterback Lee DeBose (990 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing) will be the marked men in Howard's dive-option offense.

"We are starting with a different attitude this year," said DeBose. "Last year, we didn't know if we would win. Now, we talk about how bad we will beat teams. {Opponents} will be keying on Harvey this year, but he is the type of player who will always get his yards. They will have to stop him or me, but I don't think they will be able to stop both of us."

Jeffries promises few surprises this year. Unlike the last two seasons, the team will get off to a good start, he thinks, because it will probably have 29 preseason practices. Last year, it was limited to 18 because of problems with the installation of the stadium's artificial surface.

"When we started to win last year, our defense was a basic one with few wrinkles," he said. "Teams are simply going to have to stop our best to beat our offense. On defense, they will just have to beat a conservative defense, which we hope will not give up any big plays."

One newcomer could become the defensive key. James Moses, a 5-8, 185-pound redshirt freshman who bench presses 340 pounds and runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, is likely to start at strong safety.

"He is an impact player," said defensive coordinator Ben Blacknall.