Rich Milot, the Redskins' highly regarded rookie linebacker, ran with the first defensive unit ahead of veteran Pete Wysocki during a closed practice yesterday, according to sources close to the team.
Coach Jack Pardee refused to comment on any personnel changes, although he would not rule out that some could be made for the season-opener against Houston here Sunday.
In another development, guard Dan Nugent probably will undergo back surgery next week to repair a ruptured disk that flared up again yesterday following contact drills.
"I will meet with my doctor on Thursday," said Nugent, who became a starter last season, "and we will talk about the back. But I'm sure I will have to have surgery.
"I want to play football again. I enjoy it; it's my career. And the only way I can see playing it again is to have the operation. Traction just isn't enough."
The Redskins, as expected, also added free agent Buddy Hardeman to the roster to take Tony Green's place as the No. 1 kick returner. To make room for Hardeman, who says he has returned no more than 10 punts in his life, the club placed defensive tackle Perry Brooks on the four-game injured-reserve list.
Milot, a seventh-round pick from Penn State, has been pressing Wysocki.But Pardee has been generous in his praise of Wysocki during the preseason as the former special teams' star tried to win Chris Hanburger's old starting spot.
However, the Redskins gave up 167 rushing yards -- most of the preseason -- in their exhibition finale against Cleveland and Pardee admitted "that we were soft" at linebacker against the run.
Houston is one of the strongest running teams in the NFL, led by star back Earl Campbell. "The best running team," according to Pardee, who feels the Oilers must be stopped on the ground if Washington has a chance to win.
Milot, who was drafted on the seventh round, never played linebacker at Penn State. Instead, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound athlete was a "rover" back last season after having already played tailback, fullback, defensive end and defensive back at the school.
He has been one of Pardee's prize pupils in training camp, along with fellow rookie linebackers Monte Coleman and Neal Olkewicz.
"It looks like they are trying to get some more youth into the lineup," said one Redskin source. "But it's early in the week. Maybe things could change. But you wouldn't think so."
Milot has fine quickness and range and Pardee has been particularly pleased with his ability to learn and progress during camp. The coach has stressed that the defensive unit must have more quickness and pursuit this season to improve on its dismal ranking as No. 24 in the NFL last season at stopping the run.
As he did Monday, Pardee maintained yesterday that the Redskins really weren't doing anything that "major" behind closed doors.
"We just have refrained from using some things in the preseason," he said. "We haven't shown everything. We don't want those things to get out. In a close game, two or three plays might make the difference."
But is he saying he won't make personnel changes?
"No, I didn't say we won't," he answered.
If Milot does start, it will mean the Redskins will go with two unproven linebackers against Campbell. Middle linebacker Don Hover, a second-year man, has not played a minute in the middle since entering the NFL last season.
Nugent, who first hurt his lower back while lifting weights in February, spent most of training camp in traction trying to ease the intense pain.
Doctors told him two weeks ago when he returned to the team that he had only a 50-50 chance of avoiding an operation. But he had made steady progress while swimming and running and the club kept him on the final 45-man roster Monday.
"I really gave my back its first test Monday," Nugent said yesterday. "I figured I had to find out now if I could stand up or not. I didn't want to get into a game when someone else had gone down and then go down myself. I went through my first full-scale workout."
"If I didn't want to play football, I probably would go into traction again and it would be okay to live with. But you have to do some things sometimes that aren't the easiest in order to play this game. This is one of them. I don't want an operation but it is the only way."
Without Nugent, the Redskins are left with guards Jeff Williams and Ron Saul. They probably will bring back Fred Dean, who was cut Monday, to take over as backup guard.
While Green was picked up off waivers by New York, Hardeman, a former Iowa State star who was cut by the Redskins last week, began work in practice on returning punts.
He said his emergence as the No. 1 return man "is a surprise. The Atlanta game (when he brought back five punts) was the first time I had guys coming at me. In Canada, they had to stay back five yards until the ball was caught."
"I've always wanted to return kicks," he said. "I begged them at Iowa State but they never let me.
"But I think I might do good at it because I follow blocking pretty well. I can make decisions about it. That's something I've noticed the Redskins do a good job on the punt blocking."
At the time he was out, Hardeman had been told by the Redskins to stay in shape in case they called back. He had enjoyed a decent camp, where Pardee said he displayed maybe the best hands of anyone on the team. But he was released in order for the club to buy more time to either trade Green or have him regain his 1978 form.
Hardeman acknowledged there will be pressure on him to surpass Green's feats of last season. "I suppose that's the way they're going to feel," he said. "I know they'll get 100 percent from me -- that's for sure."