Howard's football team returns nine starters on defense, four running backs capable of gaining 1,000 yards and finally has a kicker and punter to boot. But whether the Bison make big gains in Coach Ray Petty's third season will largely be determined by quarterback play.

As preseason practice got underway yesterday, Petty still wasn't sure who would be his starting quarterback. Senior Marcos Moreno (Northwestern High), who started 10 games last season, sprained his left knee during spring practice, so senior Antoine Hartfield begins two-a-days as the top quarterback. Petty might not name a starter until a few days before the Sept. 4 opener against Alabama State in the Detroit Football Classic at Ford Field.

"Going into two-a-days, they both look sharp," Petty said of his quarterbacks. "They're throwing the ball well and seem to have a pretty good grasp of what we're trying to do. We're confident either of them could get the job done for us."

Moreno, 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, passed for 972 yards and five touchdowns last season, and ran 43 times for 107 yards and two scores. But Moreno also threw 11 interceptions in 180 pass attempts -- one every 16.4 passes. The Bison, who finished 4-7 last season, ranked last in the nine-team Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in passing, averaging 113.6 yards per game. Howard's seven touchdown passes also were the fewest in the league.

Hartfield, from Oklahoma City, came off the bench in the 10th game after Moreno injured his shoulder. Hartfield threw his first career touchdown in a 21-7 loss to Bethune-Cookman, and then started the season finale and led the Bison to a 21-6 win over Delaware State. Senior quarterback Ronald Venters, who was suspended from the team near the end of last season, also is back.

"I've been working hard in the offseason, and I'm determined to get my starting job back," Moreno said.

Whoever starts at quarterback probably won't throw the ball much, for a couple of reasons. First, the Bison return four running backs -- senior Jay Colbert (Gaithersburg), juniors Jamar Smith and Keon Coleman (H.D. Woodson) and sophomore Antoine Rutherford -- who each have gained 100 yards or more in at least one game during their careers.

Moreover, the Bison lost their top five wide receivers from 2003. Those players accounted for 100 of the team's 131 receptions last season. Five of the team's seven returning receivers are sophomores.

"We have a solid running back corps and a solid receiver corps," Moreno said. "But our running backs are our strengths. We've got a lot of good running backs, and I'm sure we'll use them."

Two of Howard's most welcomed newcomers are Justin Brantley, a transfer from the University of Illinois, and freshman Noam Dror, who will compete for the place kicking duties. Last season, Howard's kickers missed 8 of 13 field goal attempts and didn't make one longer than 33 yards. During the past few seasons, the Bison routinely tried for two-point conversions after touchdowns (five times in 2003) because their place kicking was so inconsistent.

-- Mark Schlabach