This year, the Washington Redskins are building a secondary with a rare blend of rookies, crutches, heavy limps and a comeback.

It's a test of tolerance. "A great challenge," says Richie Petitbon, assistant head coach-defense.

Never a dull moment. Another day, another man down. Left cornerback Darrell Green stepped in a hole on the Dickinson College practice field this morning during a drill and suffered a mild sprain of his right ankle. X-rays taken this afternoon were negative.

"Right now, it's sore, but it should heal pretty quick," Green said as he hobbled back to his dormitory.

Head trainer Bubba Tyer said he wasn't sure how much practice time Green will miss, or if he will be able to play Sunday against the Los Angeles Raiders in the L.A. Coliseum.

Any number of rookies may start if Green doesn't Sunday: J.C. Pearson from the University of Washington; Kevin Williams of Iowa State, or Garry Kimble of Sam Houston State.

But the Redskins' three most prized new defensive backs, those likeliest to make the team -- Tory Nixon, Barry Wilburn and Raphel Cherry -- probably won't.

Nixon is second-string right cornerback, Cherry is second-string free safety and Wilburn is second-string strong safety.

On crutches, doubtful to play at all this season, is starting strong safety Ken Coffey, who underwent surgery on his left knee Monday.

Green is limping. And Tony Peters is coming back.

"The times, they are a-changin'," said Curtis Jordan, who, when last we looked, was starting at free safety. "And the faces, too."

Peters' comeback wasn't supposed to be abrupt. There was to be time to get back in shape after a pulled stomach muscle ruined his 1984 season and a suspension because of cocaine trafficking charges ruined 1983.

Then the Redskins found out there may be safety in numbers, but, in this training camp, there certainly are no numbers at safety.

When Coffey went down during the third quarter of the Redskins' 17-14 preseason victory at Atlanta Sunday, Peters was thrust into a starting role he may eventually have won on his own. The coaches were seriously thinking of moving Coffey to free safety, where they found their depth paper-thin with the release of former Pro Bowl player Mark Murphy last month.

"I heard about that from some of the players, but the coaches never told me that," Peters said. "All I know is I'm working as hard as ever and I feel as good physically as I've ever felt."

That includes 1982.

"He was great in 1982," said Coach Joe Gibbs.

Peters has been in the league since 1975, first with Cleveland, then the last six years with the Redskins, but 1982 was special. He made the Pro Bowl that year as the Redskins won the Super Bowl. He became known for his vicious hits coming up to meet the run, collecting 51 regular-season tackles (fifth on the team). "I was one of the guys who stood out on some days," he said.

Although there may be questions today about his ability to defense the pass, he covered the tight ends, man-to-man, back then. "I did it and did it well," he said. "I remember the days when (Kellen) Winslow came to town and caught one pass. Or when (Harold) Carmichael was on his (pass-catching) streak and caught one pass -- in the fourth quarter."

The following season, he was led away from training camp in handcuffs and pleaded guilty to the drug charges. He was suspended and missed the season, but was allowed back for 1984.

Injured early last season, Peters played sparingly and was placed on injured reserve in November. But his relatively brief appearance in 1984 allows the coaches to gauge him now.

"Where he is now and where he was last year at this point is day and night," Petitbon said. "1982's a long time ago, but his weight is down and he's running good. He still certainly needs a lot of work, but, we are very encouraged by his performance."

Peters is 32. "His age doesn't bother me," Petitbon said. "His relative inactivity -- that's a problem."

Said Peters, "I've missed the better part of the last two years. I need to get playing time."

Coffey's injury allows for that. In fact, there seems to be playing time for everyone now.

"It's a good thing we have some depth," said Gibbs, referring to the rookies. "We do have some good young guys there, and this is an opportunity for them."

And a chance for everyone else to bite fingernails?

"It's a quick way to get experience," said Jordan, who may well be pushed hard by Cherry before the preseason is over. "All of a sudden, we get injuries before the second preseason game and we're playing a lot of rookies. We may have to scramble back there."

The Redskins will keep seven, possibly eight, defensive backs this season, and three well may be rookies.

It's a prospect Petitbon says he doesn't mind. "This, for me, has been a great camp," he said.

But it certainly is spiced with intrigue.

"The pressure just seems to double once you cross that last preseason line," Jordan said. "That's when the youngness really can show. That's when every reaction has to be second nature."