General Manager Bobby Beathard says Monte Coleman may be the best special-teams player in the National Football League.

John Hilton, Redskin assistant coach, says he never has worked with a more talented special-teamer -- or seen one as gifted playing for another squad.

And everyone associated with the Redskins says wait until Coleman stops being a member of the punt and kickoff teams and starts as an NFL linebacker.

"That's when people will start to know him," Hilton said. "He could be something. He won't be on special teams then, but he'll probably cause enough fumbles to keep us off the field, anyway."

When Coach Jack Pardee watches films of Sunday's opponent, Pittsburgh, he sees a lot of big-play line-backers running around in Steller uniforms. These linebackers are the hub of the Super Bowl champions' defense, the same kind of defense Pardee wants to build in Washington.

"That's the kind of linebackers we hope to develop from our young people like Monte," Pardee said. "If your linebackers can hold up against both the run and the pass, it allows you to do so much more with your line and secondary."

The Redskins' defensive future lies with the like of Coleman, Rich Milot and Neal Olkewicz. The latter two have taken regular turns with the first unit this season, but the coaches believe Coleman eventually could become the best.

Already, his skills have developed so fast that he has forced his way into more playing time. For the last two weeks, he has been used in passing situations, replacing Pete Wysocki, and he has played adequately.

"It's a only a matter of time," Hilton said. "He just needs experience, that's all. You can see the ability. He's got everything you want in a linebacker. And he wants to get better. He drives himself."

Beathard thought he had discovered an unpolished gem when the Redskins drafted Coleman in the 11th round out of Central Arkansas. Coleman had been a safety for most of his college career before converting ot linebacker as a senior, and only a few NFL clubs knew about the switch.

"When Pittsburgh and Dallas start nosing around, you know you've found something," Beathard said. "That's why we drafted him. We didn't want to take a chance on losing him on the last round or as a free agent.

"You have a hunch about people. With Monte, he just looked as if he couldn't miss. Now he looks ever better."

Coleman is a 6-foot-2, 228-pound combination of speed, agility and strength. He is aggressie, a quick learner and eager to take on the biggest opponent. Only inexperience from playing at a small college is preventing him from receiving even more playing time this season.

"I'm not unhappy with not getting in more," Coleman said. "I didn't even think I'd be playing this much, I thought I'd spend the whole year on special teams, so even this much is great.

"It's taking me time to learn my keys and assignments. They do things differently here than in college, but it's coming.

"When I came to training camp, I didn't know if I could play in this league or not, at least not right now. But now I know. I belong here, I can play with these people."

While Coleman puts in his apprenticeship at linebacker, he is perfecting his skills as a special-teams star. He entered the season determined to make a name for himself by playing well on these units and Hilton says he has accomplished his goal by far.

"He is especially tough on punt coverage," Hilton said. "He has the strength to get away from blockers at the line and the speed to catch up with the receiver at the other end."

Opponents have discovered Coleman's unique abilities. They no longer try to stop him with a single blocker at the line of scrimmage. Now they will double-team him -- and Hilton swears one club might have sent four blockers at him to slow him down.

"But how you control him?" Hilton asked. "If you put a linebacker on him, he'll run right by him. If you put a back on him, he'll overpower him. He is quick enough to go around two guys. One time, he beat two guys at the line, another later on, then made the tackle while getting clipped."

"I love it, I really do," Coleman said about his special-team assignments.

"I thought it would be fun, but it's even better.

"Each week, I've noticed they are playing me differently. So I have to vary what I am doing. The first game against Philadelphia, they had a linebacker and defensive back on me. The next time, they tried two linebackers. New Orleans tried two defensive backs."

Still, nothing seems to slow down The Coleman Express. From his wide set on the punt team, he steams down the field, shrugging off blockers and hurtling himself at the kick returner.

New Orleans' Rich Mauti certainly will remeber him. Mauti tried to field a bouncing punt at the 10, but was flattened by Coleman, who also recovered the resulting fumble. Later, Coleman picked up the loose ball after Paul Smith had blocked a Garo Yepremian field goal.

"I really won't be happy until I pick up a fumble and get it into the end zone," Coleman said. "I'm trying to impove every week. I'm working hard at getting better."

Fellow linebacker Brad Dusek says Coleman already is the Redskins' best one-on-one pass-defending linebacker. And Hilton says he is just starting to fulfill his potential.

"He has tremendous physical ability, but more important, he has the drive to get it done," Hilton said. "He's going to be uncanny. Once he becomes a starter, who knows how good he can be?

"He's such a good athlete he could even be a punt returner.