Maryland Coach Ron Vanderlinden met with his defensive staff for five hours Sunday, he said yesterday, "trying to find the answer to why we haven't made the improvement we should be making week to week." Specifically, he was referring to a pass defense that allowed a combined 728 yards and five touchdowns to Duke and North Carolina State the past two games.

The discovery, he added, was that injuries led to a lack of continuity in the nickel pass defense. For instance, Bryn Boggs and Renard Cox were the starting cornerbacks the first game of the season and Tony Jackson opened at strong safety. Boggs and Cox have been beaten out and Jackson in that game broke an ankle serious enough for him to take a redshirt year.

"All that helps me keep my cool," Vanderlinden said, "not pushing the panic button."

For the Atlantic Coast Conference road game Saturday against top-ranked Florida State, the defensive coaches have moved key players back to the positions they play best. Lewis Sanders, who frequently had been the free safety in the nickel package, will return to left cornerback in the regular defense. Instead of playing the nickel position, as he has done several times, Shawn Forte will stay at free safety in all alignments.

A hamstring injury kept sophomore Tony Okanlawon out of the first two games and from being fully effective for three more weeks after that. He has replaced Cox as the starter at right cornerback, although Cox will spell both Okanlawon and Sanders in the nickel defense against Florida State. Linebacker Aaron Thompson and strong safety Randall Jones will share time at the nickel back, a position that requires the ability to rush the passer and drop into coverage.

Rod Littles, who became a starter when Jackson was injured, will stay at strong safety in the nickel defense and steady Marlon Moore will remain at outside linebacker. Redshirt freshman E.J. Henderson will be the middle linebacker in place of sophomore Kevin Bishop, who suffered ligament tears in his left knee Saturday against N.C. State that will require surgery.

"We're playing with some confidence, but not enough," Okanlawon said. "We need to get that fire back, when we knew we could do things."

In the first three games, Maryland allowed a total of just 10 points while intercepting four passes. The secondary surely would be performing better, Vanderlinden said, if the pass rush had been stronger. He was critical of junior tackle Kris Jenkins, a starter for eight games but benched last week against N.C. State.

"Maybe I overestimated his potential," Vanderlinden said. "I hope I'm wrong. He played better [against the Wolfpack] but he still hasn't made a lot of plays."

Terrapins Notes: Quarterback Calvin McCall, who tore a knee ligament Saturday, will miss both the Florida State and Virginia games, Vanderlinden said, but could be ready if the Terrapins earn a bowl bid. . . . Wide receiver Jason Hatala (broken finger) will not play against Florida State but might be available for Virginia.