With training camp only 11 days away, Coach Jack Pardee said yesterday that the continual improvement of potential starter Clarence Harmon and a healthy Buddy Hardeman make it unlikely to Redskins will trade for a running back this preseason.
This surprising development, seen as a major change in the Redskin thinking since the NFL draft, emerged as it also became apparent that both safety Kenny Houston, a perennial all-pro, and cornerback Joe Lavender, a Pro Bowl selection last year, face major challenges in camp for their starting spots.
Although the Redskins would be hesitant to bench the 36-year-old Houston, especially for the season opener Sept. 8 against Dallas, there is a chance he eventually could surrender the bulk of playing time to Tony Peters, his replacement when he broke his arm last season. And Lavender will have a difficult time holding off Jeris White, obtained from Tampa Bay for wide receiver Danny Buggs last month.
Pardee said the Redskins would be reluctant to make a trade for a running back "when the people we know are available are not as good as Clarence and Buddy. Why give up draft choices for other people's problems?"
Although the last year's starter Benney Malone, returns, the starting halfback spot probably will go to either Hardeman or Harmon, whose impressive showing during a May minicamp apparently now makes him the No. 1 candidate.
Pardee refused to name his starter yesterday, but sources say Harmon has increased his speed so much in the year that he no longer can be considered just a backup player, the role he filled in his three previous years with the club.
Hardeman had seemed the more likely starting choice and will be given a major opportunity. But Harmon is a better blocker, which is important in the Redskins' early-down offense, and his ability to start would free Hardeman for use on passing situations.
But in order to utilize Harmon for a bigger role, the Redskins first must find a backup to fullback John Riggins, a spot Harmon filled last year. Going into camp, veteran Don Testerman, hurt all of last year, has a strong chance. Pardee has been impressed with free agent Ron Harkless, a rookie out of Nicholls State.
"We can use John, Clarence and Buddy in a rotation if we could get a backup at fullback, then Clarence can concentrate on running back full time," Pardee said. "There is no reason why Riggins can't play on more downs than he did last year so Buddy and Clarence can share the other spot."
To illustrate Pardee's commitment to the "H & H" duo, he said he probably would not use Hardeman as the No. 1 return man this year in an attempt to preserve him for scrimmage plays. Either safety Mike Nelms, a pro standout in Canada, or rookie Art Monk would take over for Hardeman.
"I'd be very surprised if we made a trade (for a running back)," Paradee said. "I'm not as worried about it as most people seem to be. We've got good folks back there and they've improved since last year. "Buddy is bigger (up to 202 pounds from 188) and Clarence is faster. These are talented players.
"If someone came available that I thought would be better, then we'd make a deal. But we aren't actively seeking one right now."
Pardee is not ruling out Malone, who was a superb blocker last season but averaged less than three yards a carry, as a runner.
"Benny's legs are much better than they were at this time last year," Pardee said. "I think he can contribute."
But Washington obviously isn't counting on Malone, who is entering his option year, since the club gave him permission to make a deal, if he could, with another team in the off-season.
"Well," Pardee said, "maybe by asking around, a player might clear the air about himself and come back to camp more content."
The struggle for starting spots in the secondary could be a highlight of training camp.
Houston, coming off his arm injury, was in fine condition at the minicamp and ran one of his best times ever in the 40-yard dash. But the club thinks much of Peters. If Houston shows any signs of slowing down in this, his 14th year, Pardee will know where to turn.
"I think Kenny will have a fine year," the coach said, "but he also is the type who can adapt to any situation. He is very flexible. We certainly plan to use him and Tony a great deal. We'll even try Kenney at free safety a bit for more flexibility."
Although the Redskins were fifth in the league last year in interceptions, they would like more quickness in the secondary and better tackling from their cornerbacks. The latter need is a major reason White could be a starter over Lavender, who is not noted for his play against the run.
"Jeris has a reputation for his force on the run," Pardee said. "Maybe we'll find out it would be better for us if he played on early downs and Joe played on passing downs.
"We're much improved with our depth in the secondary. Injuries and our use of the nickel make it necessary to have more bodies than ever before. Mike Nelms, for example, is a player too and we'll find some time for him."
But as one Redskin source said: "We didn't get White to sit him on the bench."
"With the way they have opened up the passing game in the league, you can't have too many good people in your secondary," Pardee said. "I think a lot about this team but I can worry a lot less about the secondary than I did a few years ago."
Rookie report to the Carlisle training camp July 19, with the veterans coming in July 26 . . . The Redskins' three major injury victims last season -- Houston, Hardeman (broken jaw) and guard Dan Nugent (back) -- are all in excellent shape, according to Pardee . . .The Redskins are expected to announce the formal signing of No. 2 choice Mat Mendenhall when General Manager Bobby Beathard returns from vacation today.