It never is a comfortable assignment when you have to replace an athletic hero, especially one like Kenny Houston, who commands such respect from fans and teammates.

But if Tony Peters has any second thoughts about stepping in for Houston, whose broken wrist will sideline him the rest of the Redskins' season, he was not letting on yesterday.

Instead, Peters was doing his darndest to assure everyone that, as he put it, "the only change anyone is going to notice at strong safety is that the number and name on the back of the uniform is different. As far as caliber of play, it's going to be the same."

Considering Houston has made the Pro Bowl 12 straight years, Peters was saying a mouthful. But his confidence is backed by a club that is convinced experience is about the only difference now between the 26-year-old peters and the 35-year-old Houston.

"I'm quicker and faster than Kenny," Peters said. "So if I make a move, it will happen a little faster. He's got more experience, he's seen things happen a lot more but I think I've been around enough to know what's going on.

"There is only so much you can do to a strong safety. They aren't going to fool me very much."

Peters has not been fooled much since joining the Redskins in what seemed then like a routine preseason deal with Cleveland for a player few Washington fans recognized.

But that trade, which cost the Redskins two fifth-round draft choices, has become as significant as anything Bobby Beathard has done in his two seasons as general manager.

Until now, Peters' ability to play both cornerback and safety has enabled the coaching staff to shuffle secondary players according to game situations. He proved a hard-hitting reliable athlete who held up well no matter what position he played.

"When someone was injured, like Joe Lavender, he stepped in and did a fine job," said Richie Petitbon, the team's secondary coach. "He really is good against forcing the run, so we could use him on running situations. It gave us an added dimension."

With Peters' help that secondary became the strength of the defense and a major reason why the Redskins have an 8-5 record.

And his presence at this point averts what could have been a major blow to the club's immediate future.

"Without Tony, losing Kenny would have been a disaster," said Petibon. "It's bad enough, because Kenny means so much to us. But having Tony around means we are replacing him with a quality player. I don't think we are going to be hurting there. We should be able to carry on like we have been."

Beathard, who is hoarding draft choices as if they were oil wells, jumped at a chance to land Peters after the player left the Browns' training camp following a disagreement over contract and treatment.

"Once we realized the Browns weren't going to get him into camp again, we started talking a deal," Beathard said. "Tony is recognized as one of the fine young safeties in this league. You just don't get a guy like him in the draft for what we gave up.

"We'd known about him and he was rated high on our scouting reports. We didn't have much depth in our secondary. Ray Waddy was a rookie at cornerback, Mark Murphy was in his first season as a starter and Ken Houston was what, in his 13th year. We needed to groom someone for him."

Peters, who earns around $55,000, now has a two-year contract extension, a desire to play out his career in Washington and the particular respect of Petitbon, a former premier pro safety.

"Just the fact he can stand up at both corner and safety makes him different than Kenny," said Petitbon. "Kenny couldn't play corner. I just wish Tony could catch the ball better. Other than that, he has the size and speed and drive that you want back there. He's going to be all right."

Peters is a quietly confident player, a product of the University of Oklahoma and the "keep-it-cool" school of emotion. He says he purposely will not let himself get excited about any starting opportunity or about any of his better games.

"Sometimes it might look like I don't care about what is happening out there but that isn't true," he said. "I just don't feel I should waste energy using up emotion.

"I'm a follower of President Carter's philosophy. Conserve all the energy you can so you have it when you need it."

"Sure, I'll be in for an All-Pro, but I can play the position just as well. I'll just have to concentrate more and know all the things they expect of me. But it will help me this week to know I am starting ahead of time and not just until game time."

But there will be some adjustment, for both Peters and for his secondary mates. Petitbon is convinced, however, that any communication problems can be worked out quickly, especially because Peters picks up his assignments quickly.

"Tony is a bright kid and someone who wants to learn," Petitbon said. "It's always tough to replace someone like Houston. He does so much for you that involves more than just playing."

The Redskins did not have a formal practice yesterday, a first for a Tuesday this season, but many of the players worked on their own . . . Tight end Jean Fugett has been in for only a few plays the last three games, but Coach Jack Pardee said the veteran could see more action Sunday, "if we are sure he is ready to go at full speed. We are at a stage where we can't afford to have anyone go at less than that and Jean's had injury (knee and heel) problems" . . . The Redskins have three players on their active injured reserve: Houston, Buddy Hardeman (broken jaw) and Dan Nugent (back). Two of them could be brought back to the roster through the end of postseason play. Another four players, also injured, can be activated before Dec. 12 only by clearing waivers: back Don Testerman, guard Gary Anderson, defensive end Tom Milianovich and tackle Jim Harlan. g