One look at Neal Olkewicz in his football uniform and it is easy to understand why his teammates call him "Mole."

At 6 feet and 218 pounds, this rookie free agent from Maryland hardly resembles a menacing National Football League middle linebacker. But he is so far.

He has demonstrated that he is one of the Redskins' hardest hitters and a good enough man in the middle to enable Coach Jack Pardee to release last year's starter, Harold McLinton. Olkewicz remains as the backup to Don Hover, the new starter.

According to the coaching staff, Olkewicz hits hard and often, makes few mistakes and has passed every conceivable test Pardee has offered.

His size, or lack of it, is the main reason no NFL team drafted him. No one was interested in a diminutive middle linebacker -- except, apparently, the Redskins.

Olkewicz was the first free agent they signed, just five hours after the draft ended.

Washington would have signed him even sooner if he hadn't gotten lost getting to Redskin Park from College Park. "I ended up in Frederick and D.C. first, but I got there," Olkewicz said.

Olkewicz weighted 210 then and the Redskins offered him a bonus if he came to camp at 218. He did, and has been a heavy hitter ever since.

"The first contact drill we had he caught everybody's eye with his hitting," Pardee said. "It didn't take the other players long to learn his name."

The only thing about Olkewicz that concerned Pardee was his size, but that worry was short-lived.

"In training camp we had a lot of one-on-one drills and Neal did as well against Jeff Williams as anyone and that's the biggest physical mismatch we could have," Pardee said.

Williams, the first-team right guard, is 6-4 and 265 pounds.

Pardee also knows that a one-on-one drill in training camp is not the same as contact in a game. But in the second preseason game against Denver, Pardee watched Olkewicz ward off three blockers and hit Bronco quarterback Norris Weese to force a fumble late in the game.

"Every time he has been in a hot seat and wasn't protected, he has been able to come up with the plays," Pardee said. "And that's what you are looking for in a middle linebacker."

Olkewicz, who grew up in Phoenixville, Pa. ("a typical Pennsylvania steel town where people worked at the mill in the day and went to the bar at night," he says) was an inside linebacker at Maryland. The Terrapins usually played a wide-tackle-six defense, using only two linebackers.

The biggest adjustment for Olkewicz has been to learn the complicated Redskin pass coverages.

This week has been one of the wildest in Olkewicz's life. "I read in the papers one day that I was in jeopardy and then the next day McLinton was gone, Hover got hurt and I was first team," he said after yesterday's practice.

In addition to being Hover's backup, Olkewicz will be the other inside linebacker when the Redskins play a 3-4 defense. He is on the kickoff and punt special teams.

"The coaches have really put themselves on the spot with what they've decided to do at middle linebacker," Olkewicz said, "and that just makes me work that much harder. I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think they were going to give me a chance, and after I was here for a short time, I realized that I could play football at this level. I just have to keep working."

Olkewicz is one of those rookies the veterans enjoy having around. He resembles former Redskin Bob Brunet, which prompted another nickname -- Bru.

His hitting has even been looked upon favorably by the veterans, who usually disdain such a thing.

The fact that he has apparently made the team, and that the coaches like him, has not really shocked Olkewicz. He was always confident in his ability. He says the only surprise so far has been "how much fun this has all been. I'm really enjoying myself out here," he said. "Honest."

Guard Dan Nugent took part in contact drills for the second straight day and moved well, Pardee said he still wasn't sure if Nugent would play against Cleveland Friday . . . Defensive lineman Perry Brooks, coming off a bicep operation, had some light contact yesterday. His status is uncertain for Friday . . . Mark Moseley's right leg was a little sore, so he did some kicking before practice and let punter Mike Bragg handle the field goal kicking at the end of practice. Moseley and Pardee said the soreness wasn't bad, but if Moseley doesn't feel 100 percent Friday, he might not kick then, either . . . Yesterday was the first time the Redskins practiced with a 50-man squad and Pardee said it will take some getting used to. "A lot of guys were getting tired and dragging because we didn't have a lot of fresh people to keep sending in," he said.