Eleven defenders and the eyes of scrutiny chased after Joe Washington, as he darted inside, then outside, then inside, then outside past all challengers during the Washington Redskins training camp practice Tuesday.

"Just put the spurs on my boots and I'll be ready," said Washington, approaching his 30th birthday and his seventh National Football League season.

Looking at the surgical seams on both of his knees, Washington added today, "I do have the scars, but as long as I can see those quadriceps (thigh muscles), I know everything is doing all right."

Maybe it is true that hope springs eternal. After surgery on both knees in February, however, the Redskins now wonder if Joe Washington's legs spring eternal, too.

So far, they say, so good.

"Joe Washington has been one of the happiest things about camp," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We were going to start him with one a days (practices) and work him up to two a days. But Joe came in and said, 'Hey, I want to start with two a days.' I think he's looked just great so far."

Two years ago, Joe Washington looked great on a weekly basis. In 1981, he rushed for 916 yards and caught 70 passes for 558 yards. Teammates voted him their most valuable player.

"When Joe gets his hands on the ball," Gibbs said, "something good is going to happen."

Last year, though, Washington injured his knee in a preseason game against Buffalo, returned after the players strike, then developed problems in his other knee. In all, he finished with 48 carries for 212 yards and 22 catches for 167 yards. Instead of looking like the Washington of old, he looked like an old Washington.

"We all felt bad for Joe last year. He's one of the most respected players on the team," said safety Mark Murphy. "He's not the type of person who would say it publicly or show it, but you could see how much it hurt him last year not to be able to play a bigger part."

How important is Joe Washington to the Redskins this year? Put it this way: if you were to try to figure out their current running back situation (beyond the eminently stable John Riggins) by drawing a circle, Joe Washington would be located at the center, right where the compass needle is secured.

"Joe is great on quick traps and draws and he's a great receiver out of the backfield, all the specialty third-down plays," said offensive guard Russ Grimm.

This, of course, is all true. But do not, for heaven's sakes, tell Washington he is a good "third-down player."

"I'm not just a third-down back," he says. "I'm a back who can do a lot of things in third-down situations. But I can play the other downs, too."

That is good news to all those Joes working on the Redskins offense, guys like Gibbs, quarterback Theismann, coordinator Bugel and tackle Jacoby. ("Every time you hear the name Joe called out around here," Washington says, "five heads turn.")

It is also good news for Riggins, who can't be expected to man the Redskins' one-back offense for 35 carries per game, 16 games per year.

"Before this week, I really hadn't touched the football in a long time," Washington said. "I had picked one up at Redskin Park when we got our (Super Bowl) rings and that had been the last time I got my hands on one. As far as putting one under my arm, catching one or throwing one, it hasn't been since the Super Bowl and I was just standing around then. The last time I carried the ball was in the Dallas game before the Super Bowl. So it's been awhile."

And the feel? "Feels good, real good," said Washington, who used to paint his shoes silver and his future gold, while averaging 6.1 yards per carry at the University of Oklahoma.

He says he spent the offseason running hard, not long. "Sprints, mostly," he said. Washington is 5-feet-10, 171 pounds, the player called Little Joe, not so much because of his stature, but because his father was called Big Joe.

"I stand up there in the huddle," said Washington, talking like a real Little Joe, "and I'm looking at all these waistlines."

To his teammates, Washington is known for his constant humming. "From what I can remember," Washington said, "I've been humming since before I went to elementary school."

These days, as Joe Washington's knees and hopes all seem to spring eternal, there really is something to hum about.

"The thing is," Joe Washington said, "my knees are repaired."

The Redskins' roster was trimmed to 97 players today when rookie guard Norm Hopely (West Chester State) was placed on waivers and rookie center Jeff Nyce (North Carolina State) left camp . . . Guard Mark May did not participate in tonight's practice. He suffered a deep bruise to his right triceps during a blocking drill in Tuesday's practice. Assistant Coach Joe Bugel said he was concerned about the injury because, he said, Fred Dean was out for several months with a similar injury. As a precaution, George Reihner, 28, a 260-pound offensive guard, who played at Penn State and with the Houston Oilers, will be given a physical and possibly a tryout Thursday. Reihner lives in Carlisle . . . The Redskins will scrimmage the Baltimore Colts Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Carlisle High School.