When the Redskins talked to ex-Canadian star Mike Nelms about returning punts for them this season, he fully expected he would have to beat out the likes of Buddy Hardeman, Bobby Hammond and possibly rookie Art Monk.

Nelms, now listed as the team's No. 1 return man, never dreamed he'd have to deal with linebacker Monte Coleman.

Nor did the Washington coaches -- until recently. But the more John Hilton, the man in charge of special teams, thought about trying the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Coleman as a return man the more the idea seemed appealing. Now Hilton is all but drooling about the prospect.

"I'm serious about trying Monte," Hilton said. "We already have him back there taking punts in practice.

"How would you like to bring down a guy who weighs that much and runs a 40 in 4.5 seconds? He's like a bull. He's a great athlete and he has almost as good hands as Nelms."

Will the Redskins actually try Coleman in a preseason game? "For sure," Hilton said. "Wouldn't it be something if it worked?"

Both Nelms (6-1, 195) and Coleman appeal to the Redskins on the basis of size and speed. The age of the small, waterbug-style returner might be over, squashed by rule changes that reduce blocking coverage and leave players more open to punishment.

To survive, the returner has to be able to shed tackles consistently instead of just running around pursuers. Hilton thinks Nelms and Coleman have that ability.

"You've to be able to run through at least one tackler pretty consistently," Hilton said. "J. t. Smith did that all the time last year with Kansas City and he was one of the best in the league. He was always knocking over one or two tacklers just as he started."

Not that Nelms yearns to have his body destroyed. Quite the opposite.

"I have," he said today, "a knack for avoiding tacklers. You preserve your body better that way. Of course, in Canada, the rules were a little different."

But it was Nelms' work in Canada, where he led the league in returns, that made the Redskins so eager to sign him. The club is not very concerned that he will have trouble adapting to the rules of the NFL, a more narrow field (by 15 yards) and no more five-yard retraining area between tackles and the return man as he catches the punt.

"A good athlete like Mike won't have any trouble adapting," Hilton said. "He was really something up there. That's why we have him as our No. 1 return man right now. But all we have to go by is the films and what the scouts say. The real test will come during the exhibition games."

By now, Nelms has grown accustomed to tests. He was all-state in track and football at his Texas high school, yet had to go to Sam Houston State for two years before he could interest Baylor in giving him a football scholarship. He thought he played as well as Baylor teammate Gary Green in college, but Green was a first draft pick by Kansas City and Nelms didn't go until the seventh round. Then he was cut in training camp by Buffalo.

"I always seem to be reaching and struggling to get what I want," Nelms said. "They say that some people have to go to Canada and mature. Maybe that was the case with me, but I always thought I could play in the NFL. But playing up there did help me."

General Manager Bobby Beathard saw Nelms when he played at Baylor. He agrees that three years have made a major difference.

"Mike is bigger, stronger and faster," Beathard appraised. "He's always been a great leaper with great hands. And the people in Canada all had a good word for him. They said he was better than Vernon Perry (who played well for Houston last year and intercepted a flock of passes in the playoffs against San Diego and Pittsburgh)."

By the time Nelms had finished his third season in Canada, mostly with Ottawa, he led the league in punt returns (106 for 1,155 yards and a 10.9 average) last year and topped the Eastern Conference in interceptions with 10, giving him 19 in his pro career.

He also has risen above the level Ottawa felt it could afford to pay him.

"They really don't draw that well in the town and they knew the kind of money I was worth," Nelms said. "So they wished me good luck and I started to look around in the NFL."

Fourteen teams later, he settled on the Redskins "because I like how the coaches and staff treated me and I felt I would get some playing time because of the way they use a lot of players. I really didn't want to sit on the bench. You get rusty too quick."

Nelms already has found out life might be different with the Redskins. The club has asked him to return kicks. Every other place he played, from high school through Canada, he had to request that duty.

"I love to return kicks, I really do, but everywhere I've been, someone else has always been the No. 1 guy," he said. "I didn't even bring back the majority of punts in Canada before last season.

"Just to make sure, I asked if I could do it here too. But they already had indicated to me that they were going to use me that way."

Maybe Nelms's punt-returning style has something to do with his history. He has admitted not the fastest man in the NFL, but a combination of a quick start, sure hands and elusive early steps makes him a dangerous runner.

Before he can exhibit those talents, he must master handling the NFL football, smaller than the one used in Canada. The ball also lacks white stripes, and he says that "makes more difference than I thought."

The Redskins hope Nelms emerges as a top-flight returner so Hardeman will be freed to concentrate on his duties as a possible first-string running back. Until he broke his jaw last season, Hardeman was one of the best runback men in the league.

Nelms also figures prominently in the Redskins' plans for the secondary. "He has a nose for getting to the football," Beathard said.Nelms, a free safety, figures to get time in the nickel defense and as backup to Mark Murphy, although he believes he can help out additionally at cornerback, a position he played in Canada.

As for Coleman, he was still surprised that the staff would even consider him for punt-returning duties.

"Coach Hilton told me to get back there and catch punts today and I did and then I went to the pass-receiving line and he told me to get back to punt returns," Coleman said. "Hey, I'd love to try it. I did it in college and I had a 20.2-yard average, but I was the 'up' man and didn't bring many back.

"But I also didn't weigh 235 then. I'm game to try anything. It might be fun."