Right away, because he laughed in the face of calamity, you knew Jeff Williams was either crazy or thought he was the best football player alive. Or maybe both. The Redskins made him a starting offensive tackle with literally 10 seconds notice. He weighed 280 pounds, all but a few ounces of it sagging over his belt buckle. My, my what Too Tall Jones did to this poor fellow.

And today, when Jack Pardee, the Redskin brain, says Jeff Williams is one of the key people in building a respectable team, witnesses to Williams' 1978 disasters whack themselves upside the head and say, Hey, is Pardee talking about the same Jeff Williams who couldn't block your Aunt Tilly, the same Williams who made Joe Theismann an endangered species . . . that Williams?

The name's the same, but the game isn't.

"He's taken that belly and moved it up here," said Pardee, puffing out his chest in approximation of Williams' retooled body. Always a tackle, Williams now is a guard. A first string guard. A big guard at 6 feet 3 3/4, 266 pounds. A fast guard, who in high school was the Massachusetts state high hurdles champion. "He is a great athlete," said General Manager Bobby Beathard.

You'd have never known it last season. But then, no mortal could have succeeded under the impossible conditions imposed on Williams. Because he wasn't sure he wanted to play football, he didn't join the Redskins until midseason, then for only one workout before an opening kick-off injury to a starter suddenly threw Williams into the right tackle's job. He made famous some defensive linemen previously known only to their mothers.

And he laughed about it, laughed at his inadequacies and said he wouldn't be in the NFL very long if he didn't get better in a hurry. You went by his locker after a game and he'd say he'd been terrible and he'd inquire after Theismann's health. Lord, I'm trying, Williams would say, but have you ever seen Too Tall Jones?

"I didn't even know what our plays were," Williams said today. "They'd call signals. Wham, wham, whoosh, whiff."

Here Williams waved his hands around in vivid description of the unstoppable charges of Jones and lesser defensive ends.

"Then I'd look around, and Theismann would be on his hind end."

The laughter wasn't from the comedy of it all. Williams said. "I was so bad I either had to laugh or cry, and there were too many people around to cry." Besides, he knew he had been a good player at Colgate University, good enough to be drafted fifth by the Rams, good enough that Beathard, a proven judge of talent, demanded him in the trade for Eddie Brown.

A word about that trade: Williams quit football rather than play for the Redskins. Ten weeks later, nine games into the season, he rejoined the team. Of that episode, he says, "I learned a lesson in life. I learned to conform, not to confront. But that's all behind me now."

Ahead, if Pardee has his way, is a long career as an offensive guard. "I'm overjoyed at how Jeff is doing," the coach said today. "He's one of the key people in improving this team."

It was dismissed as a coach's memble-jumbo when Pardee said over the winter that the Redskins, with no draft choices and no bodies to trade, must improve themselves "from within." This, clearly, was a desperate coach trying to buy time with doubletalk. Improve from within? With what? If you lose eight of your last 10 games, wouldn't it be wiser to get rid of those players instead of -- dreamer, dreamer -- saying they could improve?

Thinkers of such thoughts ought to be spanked and sent to their rooms without dinner, because with the transformation of Jeff Williams from whoosh-whiff tackle to big-quick guard Pardee, in fact, has improved the Redskins from within.

Williams, 24, is in his third NFL season. He played one game for the Rams in 1977 before sitting out the year with a knee injury. Only last winter did he work on a strenuous weightlifting program. While the weights hoisted his stomach, they did nothing to prepare the is-Joe-in-one-piece tackle for the orders Pardee gave him the first day of training camp this summer.

Pardee said, "You're a guard now." Williams thought, "Oh, shoot." Or something like that.

Most of Williams' football life, to hear him tell it, has been devoted to trying to escape from the offensive line. He wanted to be a linebacker, a defensive end, anything but an offensive lineman. That's because offensive linemen get hit a lot by angry defensive guys named Too Tall and Mean Joe.

And sometimes, what is worse, those angry fellows simply fly by enroute to the quarterback's noggin.

"I saw an unpolished tackle," Williams said wryly today, speaking, of course, of himself in films from last season.

A tackle looking over his shoulder as the enemy passes by untouched?

Over both shoulders."

Yet now Williams is working maybe the most difficult offensive line job of all -- more running, more intricate assignments, more adjustments -- and he is not looking for a way out.

"I'll do the best I can," Williams said. "I don't guarantee anything. It's working out all right, but I don't think I've fallen deeply in love with the position."

Since, isn't it better starting than riding the bench?

"I'd rather start at quarterback," he said, smiling.

The 1979 Redskins will be a conservative team. They will do nothing fancy, primarily because they have no fancy performers. To win with a conservative philosophy, a team must play outstanding defense. And it must be able to run well enough to keep the ball for long stretches. While the Redskins defense is not guaranteed against imperfection, at the moment the offense is the greater source of worry.

Williams, who says the Redskins are "playoff-bound," thinks the offense will be good enough.

"We better be able to run," he said. "We sure as hell have been practicing it enough."

Which means that, at least, the reluctant offensive lineman knows what the Redskins plays are. But as luck would have it, Too Tall Jones has retired and Williams won't have a second chance. Shoot.