Rich Milot's mother called him the other day to say how excited she was that he and fellow Redskin linebackers Neal Olkewicz and Monte Coleman finally had a catchy nickname.

"I read in the paper that you call yourselves the Three Musketeers," she said.

"We do?" replied Milot.

For once, he was serious.

"I never knew that was supposed to be our nickname," he said. "And now I find out Neal started calling us that two years ago.

"Three stooges," said Milot, his tongue firmly in his cheek, "might have been a better choice."

Entering the 1979 draft, the Redskins had five choices, none higher than the fourth round. The club felt it desperately needed a tight end, then as many linebackers as General Manager Bobby Beathard could pick.

"But with our draft situation, we really weren't too optimistic," Beathard said."We used the fourth rounder to get Donnie Warren. After that, we had a seventh, ninth and two 11ths. Those four are all longshot choices. How many players drafted that low ever make it?"

Beathard crossed his fingers and made the rest of his selections, knowing he probably was wasting his time.

In the seventh he took Milot, a former running back who had played strong safety his senior year at Penn State. The scouting combines saw him as a too-slow defensive back. Beathard projectd him as a rangy linebacker.

In the 11th, he chose Coleman, who was still listed as an average-sized safety by the combines even though he played linebacker his senior year at Central Arkansas and had grown in the offseason to 220 pounds.

Olkewicz, a star at Maryland, was not chosen; he was considered to small and slow to be an NFL middle linebacker. Beathard signed him as a free agent.

"We were from the wastelands of the drafts," Olkewicz said. "Nobody makes a squad coming from our situations. Nobody."

Yet these Three Musketeers will be the Redskins' starting linebackers for the opener against Dallas today.

It is remarkable that the Three Musketeers are more than casual acquaintances. Coleman comes from the rural South, rarely drinks and loves to fish. Milot and Olkewicz are from Pennsylvania, hate to fish and enjoy a beer or two; they have few similar interests. They also attended rival universities. And what Maryland player likes anyone from Penn State, especially a linebacker?

Yet the three have been close almost from the day they began training camp in the same rookie locker room and were grouped together by then-coach Jack Pardee as the three early surprises of the summer.

"It's become a special thing among us. I think we all feel the same about each other," Olkewicz said. "i guess we were rivals at the start but it never seemed that way. We went through the same learning process, made the same mistakes, had the same fears. I used to have a locker next to Monte's and when someone would get cut, we'd say the train had made a stop. We kept asking if we could hear the sound of the train coming in."

Coleman was the classic sleeper, the little-known player from the little known college whoe athletic gifts were apparent to the most casual onlooker.

Milot was classic natural athlete who never had found his proper position. He had done everything but coach in high school and college, but now he would be allowed to settle into one spot. Or so he thought.

Olkewicz was the classic longshot who should have been watching from the stands He didn't meet NFL computer standards, but every running back in camp feared his crackling tackles that seemed to highlight almost every practice.

Pardee kept all three. And the three kept their friendship.

Monte Coleman, 6-2, 228 pounds, 23, married, two children. The Musketeers call him Shakespeare, for all the interviews he gave his rookie season.

The prototype outside linebacker would be about 6-2, 230, run a 4.5 40 and bench press 400 pounds. That's Monte Coleman.

"You couldn't ask for any more in a linebacker than Coleman has right now," said Larry Peccatiello, the linebacker coach. "Inside of Monte Coleman lurks a bona fide NFL premier linebacker, waiting to explode. If he keeps progressing, this could be his year."

Says Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon: We're looking for him to produce our big plays. He's the guy that should make things happen."

Coleman has been waiting two years to make things happen. He has been told he has all the gifts to be a superstar. He has been told he already is among the best special teams players in the league. He appreciates the compliments, but he wants to prove to himself he deserves the praise.

"I have goals," he said. "I want to lead the team in tackles. I want to be a Pro Bowl linebacker. Maybe I can't do that this year, maybe I have to get recognition one year before I make the Pro Bowl the next. But I won't be satisfied until I do.

Coleman doesn't volunteer such comments. "No one really knows how hard Monte works," said Milot. "He just does it. He isn't going to braodcast it around."

Coleman thought last year, when Dusek began the season injured, that he would live up to his press clippings. But he was overanxious and underexperienced. He finished second on the team in tackles but his inconsistency and inability to carry out his assignments while being shuffled in and out of many games frustrated him.

"I was young and I was trying to do too much," he said. "I really wasn't carrying out my responsibilities. I would be trying to help out or make the big play without taking care of my duties first. Pec (Peccatiello) has really helped me. I've learned more from him in one camp than I did my first two years. Things are falling into place."

"His one problem is his clothes," Milot said, sharpening his needle. "We call him GB, after Gentlemen's Quarterly. His wardrobe makes Willie Nelson's look expensive."

Neal Olkweicz, 6-0, 227, 24, bachelor, proud owner of a Siberian huskie pup. The other Musketeers call him Mole, from a story in which he was described as being "scarcely bigger than a mole ."

Milot on Olkewicz: "Monte and I think about being athletes first, about how fast we might be able to run or how much we can lift. Neal thinks of being a football player first."

Until last season, he could never remember being unhappy as a player. Then he hurt his knee the final preseason game, missed five weeks, and played hurt the rest of the way. In his absence, Milot became a starter in the middle. The two ultimately wound up sharing the position, with Olkewicz usually trotting off the field after the first down.

"I had a few problems my rookie year with pass coverage and then I was told I couldn't cover any more," he said. "I didn't get as much work and I got worse doing it. Then last year, it got to a point where I was looking over my shoulder to the bench before I got all the way to the huddle. My leg wasn't right and the season was so bad, it just wasn't the best time."

Milot and Olkewicz tried diligently not to let their on-field rivalry strain their friendship. "Neal tried to act like it didn't matter to him, and I did the same, but it was tough," Milot said. "Neither one of us was very happy. I had never played the middle before and it was all so new, it consumed me. But finally I started to like it. And, of course, Neal wanted to play, too."

Even in Seattle, where he was defensive coordinator last year, Peccatiello had heard Olkewicz was ineffective on pass coverage, creating a problem at middle linebacker.

"Not so," Peccatiello says now. "Neal's really improved. He does everything on pass coverage you would ask of a middle linebacker. He's just had a super camp. He's healthy, he's enjoying himself and he's doing the job."

How important is Olkewicz to the Redskin defense?

"The key," said Petibon. "If he plays well this year, we'll be a good unit."

Olkewicz may be the only NFL player who is a jail guard in the offseason. "He's a redneck type who is going to fight crime wherever it is," says Milot about his camp roommate.

Olkewicz was a law enforcement major at Maryland, where he dreamed of becoming a policeman. Now he is one of the team's most prominent leaders and the most experienced of the Three Musketeers after having started for about half of the last two seasons.

"I've always placed on instinct," Olkewicz said. "This year, I'm starting to combine my keys and techniques with maturity."

Rich Milot, 6-4, 230, 24, married no children. The other Musketeers call him Miltot, which is how an assistant coach once spelled his name.

Coleman and Olkewicz swear that Milot is not as serious as he appears. "He's a crazy guy," said Coleman. "He comes up with all these corny phrases. Like he will walk up to you and say, 'the sun is shining.' He does it all the time.'"

Not true, says Milot. "I do a lot of things, but I don't think of corny phrases. These guys must have had too much sun this summer."

Even Milot's football talents have earned him a corny label: Mr. Versatile. Ever since high school, he has been shuffled from position to position. This year, he hopes that will change.

"I think being versatile has helped me, it's got me to this point right now, but it would benefit my career for me to take hold of one position," he said. Although he still works occasionally in the middle, that forever spot appears to be right outside linebacker.

"It would be great for Richie to stay outside from now on," Peccatiello said. "I don't think it's helped him that much to be moved around. The outside and middle are so different, they each require so much concentrated work. But for selfish team reasons, we still have to give him some work in the middle.

"Rich is making good progress. The only thing holding him up right now is some hesitation. He's thinking before moving and we are trying to get him to flow more."

Milot is a thoughtful, sincere, intelligent man who reads economic periodicals and dabbles in offseason politics. Last offseason, he worked for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), although he says "politics is just a hobby. I have no ambitions. But I can remember sitting around when I was growing up and discussing politics with my aunts and uncles and family. It's always interested me. I just was fortunate to be drafted by a team right in the middle of the political captial of the world. I wanted to take advantage of it."

Olkewicz said he came to rookie camp "reading that the Redskins had drafted a linebacker from Penn State. Coming from Maryland, I was going to show this guy that we could produce linebackers, too. But I couldn't dislike him once I got to know him. The only problem has been, I keep losing bets to him every time the two teams play."