When John Riggins "went fishing" last week, Clarence Harmon stayed at Redskin Park and cut bait.

As a result, Harmon started ahead of Riggins at fullback in the season opener against the Houston Oilers, and he is now seriously challenging for the No. 1 fullback spot.

In practice this week, Harmon and Riggins have gone about 50-50 in the drills with the first unit and both say they are not sure who will start Sunday against the Detroit Lions in the Silverdome.

Coach Jack Pardee seems to be leaning toward starting Riggins. He says he feels a little more comfortable when he has a Clarence Harmon -- perhaps the Redskins' most versatile player -- next to him on the sideline, ready to be sent in to get a specific job done.

"He's smart and he knows everything, that's what makes him so valuable," Pardee said. "He's the kind of guy we want to see in the game as much as possible. We're trying now to get him ready to play more halfback."

I'm to the point now where I honestly don't care if I start or not," Harmon said yesterday. "I just want the playing time and I'm getting it."

Harmon already plays as many or more minutes as any Redskin. He is used both at fullback and halfback, he is the wingback on short-yardage and goal-line plays and he is on the punt, punt-return and kickoff teams.

One teammate says Harmon is like a Timex watch: "No matter where you put him or under what circumstances, he always does the right thing. He can take a licking and keep on ticking."

"Clarence is just one heckuva back," said quarterback Joe Theismann. "He works hard and he studies hard and he's well-disciplined. He knows the backfield stuff real well and he also has the physical ability to go with it. He's a dynamite runner, a great blocker and a fine receiver.

"Besides that, you can count the mistakes he's made in the last couple of years on a thimble. He's just the kind of guy you feel comfortable with back in the backfield."

Harmon, a free agent from Mississippi State, came to camp this season heavier (213) and faster than ever before and the Redskins had planned all along to give him more playing time.

In the back of his mind, Harmon had his sights set on becoming the starting hallback, yet it didn't seem to faze him when he was put at fullback in training camp.

He worked almost exclusively at fullback in the preseason, but when Benny Malone and Ike Forte both went down against the Oilers, Harmon was called on to play halfback.

He turned in his usual steady performance.

While playing both running-back spots, he carried the ball four times for 23 yards, including a 15-yard effort, the longest run by a Redskin all day. He also caught one pass and returned two kickoffs.

"John (Riggins) and I always joke about who'll start," Harmon said. "We say the guy who has it best is the one who doesn't start because he can come in after the other one has worn the opposition down. We don't know who'll start and we don't care."

Harmon talks like a secure, confident man who knows he fills an important role on the team. It wasn't always that way.

When he first came to the Redskins, "they had 15 backs and I was No. 14 and one was hurt," he said.

The Redskins eventually kept five running backs that year -- Riggins, Mike Thomas, Calvin Hill, Bob Brunet and Clarence Harmon.

One of the things the Redskins knew they had to improve on this year was their short-yardage attack. They have worked on it virtually every day since the first day of training camp and the results are starting to show.

Harmon is the major change they made for short yardage situations. Last season, the Redskins used two tight ends and a wide receiver lined up as a wingback. This year, they have replaced the wide receiver with Harmon.

From a wingback spot, Harmon is just as effective a pass receiver as any of the Redskins' wide receivers, and he is a much better blocker.

"He's used to blocking linebackers and safeties and that's who he'll block on short-yardage situations," Pardee said. "He uses the same techniques he uses playing his regular position, so that does make him more effective there. Besides, it gets him in the game more and we need him in the game."

Tight end Jean Fugett was back at practice yesterday after having missed Wednesday's workout because his infant son was ill. He said the baby had a virus but is fine now . . . Benny Malone was back and running at full strength yesterday, apparently recovered from his leg ailments . . . Pardee said he likes what he sees of Lonnie Perrin and wants to work him more at fullback . . .