The Redskin youth movement at linebacker claimed another veteran yesterday when Don Hover took over as starting middle linebacker and longtime regular Harold McLinton was dropped after 10 years on the team.
McLinton, who pulled a calf muscle Saturday night against Atlanta, could not be cut immediately under NFL rules because of the injury. He was placed on the injured reserve list, but once he is healed in two to three weeks, he will be placed on irrevocable waivers. He cannot play again this season for the Redskins.
Hover, a second-year man out of Washington State, had been pegged by team sources two weeks ago as this year's probable middle linebacker. He has never started an NFL game in the middle, but has performed increasingly better during the team's three preseason games.
With McLinton gone, the Redskins now have very inexperienced middle linebackers: Hover and free agent rookies Neal Olkewicz of Maryland and Willie Banks of Penn State. All three probably will make the final cut, with Hover and Olkewicz apparent shooins.
Ironically, Washington almost lost Hover just hours after dumping McLinton, who was second only to Mike Bragg in years with the club. Hover collided with close friend Mark Murphy during practice yesterday while covering a pass and twisted an ankle. He limped off the field in obvious pain.
But later Coach Jack Pardee said Hover's ankle was not severely twisted. "He should be ready by Tuesday, or, if not, by Wednesday," said Pardee.
McLinton said that he really "didn't expect it like this. He (Pardee) just told me that he made up his mind to go with two young kids (Hover and Olkewicz). He just was waiting to see if they could do the job. Once he was convinced, he let me go.
"I can play two or three more years but it wasn't anything I could control. My camp was good so it had to be a decision he made before. Even if I had killed myself it wouldn't have made any difference. It's obvious I couldn't do anything about it. It was just how well the young kids played."
Team sources said that McLinton had lost much of his quickness and did not tackle as consistently or as well as Hover, a 6-foot-2, 228-pound eight-round pick last season.
And Hoover, according to the sources, consistently defended against running plays better than McLinton, who could not move from sideline to sideline as quickly.
McLinton, however, said he felt he was in the prime of his career. "I don't think the preseason should have been used for a test and it's just not fair to say that Hover outplayed me. Why was I always on trial and why did I always have to be the one to prove myself?
"I was upset, though, about all this being in the paper and Jack not having said anything to me about it, but the whole thing doesn't really surprise me. Not too much in pro sports can surprise you anymore, but Pardee knows I can play. Can you make a decision by playing me one-half of one game? I don't buy that. It has to be a thing where he didn't have confidence in me at all."
McLinton said he wished his status had been determined earlier "because I could have gotten on with another team, maybe. When he let Mike (Curtis) go, he said he did it so he could catch on with another team. Why didn't he do that with me?"
The Redskins were hesitant to release McLinton before they were sure one of the four young middle linebackers they brought to camp could fill the position.
Hover, who got off to a slow start, had an impressive performance against Tampa Bay in the opening exhibition game and he took off from there. Going into that contest, he was listed as No. 3 on the depth chart behind McLinton and now-waived Tim Petersen.
"I was scared they were going to let me go," Hover said. "They never talked about me in meetings. They'd always pick out someone else for good plays in the films. It was getting discouraging. I was beginning to wonder about myself."
Once Hover excelled against the Bucs, he began receiving the bulk of the playing time. McLinton was in for a quarter against Tampa and less than a quarter each against Denver and Atlanta, where the calf injury forced him out earlier than scheduled.
Since taking over the middle permanently in 1974, McLinton, 32, a sixth-round pick from Southern University, has overcome almost yearly challenges from younger players. He said earlier in the training camp that he had tired of reading "all the time about how awful I was as a player."
Called "Tank" by his teammates, McLinton was one of the most respected and best-liked players on the roster. He is active in youth work and has a pleasing, relaxed disposition tempered by deep religious beliefs.
"He was a great person," said Hover. "That's why I am happy and sad. "I'm glad to get the job but not at Harold's expense. We talked today and he wished me good luck. He's that type."
Pardee, who has had to make a lot of difficult decisions regarding veterans since taking over the team last season, said dropping McLinton was "not easy."
"He works so hard, he's a good team player and he always gives you an honest day's effort every time out," said Pardee. "But with our numbers problems, we had to make a decision. Hover has demonstrated he can do a good job. We felt he was doing the best job of our inside linebackers.
"He's got good height, weight and he's as strong as any of our linebackers. We are young in the middle but we will do a lot of substituting and we'll use a lot of formations. The way we play defense now our outside linebackers have good speed. In the 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker has to be able to do the job against the run."
Pardee said that against the Falcons, Hover "made four of the best plays in the game, two in the middle and two as a special teams player." Those plays apparently won him the starting job.
Hover said he has played only one game in his career as a middle linebacker. "It was in the Challenge Bowl after my senior year in college," he said. "In college, we played a 3-4 and before my senior year, I played on the outside.
"I thought I was two or three years away from having this happen. I was surprised when I showed up today and they told me what had happened. Now I've got to use the opportunity to show the coaches they were right."
Cornerback Joe Lavender missed practice while attending a preliminary hearing in San Diego regarding his September court trial for allegedly assaulting two policemen . . . Other cuts yesterday: punter Rich Pennella and kicker Nick Lowery . . . Dan Nugent went through agility drills but did not participate in any contact work yesterday. He said his back is feeling better every day but he didn't know if he would play against Cleveland Friday night . . . An outbreak of the flu has hit the team. Center Bob Kuziel and linebacker Monte Coleman were slowed by it yesterday . . . As long as McLinton stays on the injured reserve list, he will be paid his full salary by the Redskins . . . Eight more players have to be cut today by 4 p.m.