Coach Jack Pardee said yesterday that young Don Hover has proved during three exhibition games that he can play middle linebacker in the National Football League. Now the Redskins have to decide if he can play the position well enough to move into a starting spot.

Hover has been pressing veteran Harold McLinton for a starting slot since the third week of training camp. The Redskins have given the second year man a long, long look during those preseason games while hardly using McLinton.

With a squad cut-down coming up Tuesday, when the Redskins have to be pared to 50 players, and another scheduled in a week, when the roster is trimmed to a final 45, Pardee and his assistants are running out of time to make a choice between youth and experience in the middle.

While some team sources have said that once the coaches feel Hover can handle the position he would replace McLinton, Ardee has never committed himself.

He said yesterday that Hover "over the last three weeks has continued to play well and that's impressive."

"The good plays are way ahead of his bad plays, the way it should be. We are getting more confidence in him and he is looking good in the 4-3 front. He's shown us something."

McLinton played a quarter or less in the first two preseason games. He was scheduled to go at least a quarter against Atlanta Saturday night but pulled a calf muscle midway through the opening period and did not return.

Picking a middle linebacker is just one of the difficult decisions facing Pardee over the next eight days. He also must reduce his offensive linemen, running backs and wide receivers. All three areas have had close, spirited competition during camp.

While the coaches ponder which 11 player to cut by 4 p.m. Tuesday, at least Joe Theismann has eased some of the worry about the quarterback spot.

Theismann, who has not had a particularly consistent training camp, finally demonstrated some of the spark against Atlanta that he must display throughout the regular season for the Redskins to have a shot at the playoffs.

Team sources say there was great concern about Theismann's play before the Falcon game, mainly because he did not seem to be making any progress from last season.

Although hardly perfect in the Falcon game, he showed better poise and impromptu decision-making than he had displayed previously during either practices or exhibition games.

"I think Joe showed poise under pressure, he moved around well and he made something out of nothing," said Pardee. "Last year, he had a hard time making something out of nothing.

"We don't want him scrambling just to scramble. But we don't want him to stand there and take a shot.The important thing is, he has to make sure he has given the play time to develop and the receivers time to make their moves before he takes off. Last year, we didn't have a good conversion rate once we started moving out of the pocket."

Theismann scrambled three times for 36 yards to keep two Redskin drives alive. He also threw for his first two touchdown passes of the season -- "It's the first time we've gone long to score," he said -- while maintaining the same kind of high completion-low interception ratio he had established through the first two preseason games.

It is this ability to make things happen while not committing major mistakes that will be the key to how well Theismann is accepted by his teammates this year.

"We have to know that when we need a big play, Joe will produce it and not give an excuse," said one teammate. "It's that simple."

Friends of Theismann say that this has not been an easy camp for him. Although relieved of the Billy Kilmer threat, he has been pressing to play spectacularly. He has been under constant pressure not to make any mistakes, even in routine passing drills.

As a result, Theismann has seemed hesitant at times in workouts against the veteran secondary. Pardee said, "Joe hasn't had as much work as he had last year. We've had to get Kim (McQuiken) time too. He needs more 11-on-11 practice and he will get it."

Theismann has completed 25 of 40 passes for 250 yards in three exhibition games. Just as important to Pardee, he has tossed only one interception and has been sacked just five times. Until Saturday night, he had been asked to do very little pressure passing, yet still was 12 of 20 for 159 yards.

"I think I've had a very, very useful camp," said Theisman. "I've accomplished what I wanted to so far. We all are getting more used to the offense. I think I'm better picking up different receivers and setting up things like that.

"Remember, this is only the second year we all have played under this offensive system. It takes time."

Said one team source: "If we can get the quarterbacking from him (Theismann), we can go somewhere. But he has to keep coming around."

Theisman was not the only Redskin to enjoy a good game against Atlanta. Wide receivers Ricky Thompson and Danny Buggs combined for 10 catches and two touchdowns, reserves halfback Ike Forte probably earned himself a roster spot with continued good running and defenders Lamar Parrish, Brad Dusek, Diron Talbert, Mark Murphy and Dave Butz all drew praise from Pardee.

Some of the performances are going to make the cuts more difficult. All the reserve linemen played well, but at least two will have to be dropped by next week. And things could get more complicated along the line if Dan Nugent, who probably will test out his bad back today for the first time in pads, makes a successful comeback.

Pardee also has to decide which two of his present nine linebackers have to be lopped off. Dallas Hickman, for example, is still a valuable special teams man, but Pardee seems to be leaning toward youngsters Rich Milot and Monte Coleman.

With Forte showing well, either Buddy Hardeman or Louis Carter, or possibly both, could be dropped at running back.

"This is going to be a tough cut," said Pardee. "But at least we are chosing among quality at most spots."