The footsteps Mike Nelms hears these days when he awaits a floating kick do not belong only to his tacklers.

Others bear down on him now, men like Gary Clark, the wide receiver and kick returner from the U.S. Football League.

They don't want to tackle him. They want his job.

Nelms, the Washington Redskins' 30-year-old kick returner, says he always has been vulnerable, whether he is standing alone on the field with 11 larger players heading his way, or whether he is watching the newest rookies breeze into training camp.

"There's always a battle," he said. "Few things in this game surprise me. The last three years, I've been about to be cut -- at least in the papers."

But Nelms, long considered one of the surest and best return men in the National Football League, knows this year is different. In the spring, in a move the Redskins criticized strongly, the NFL cut team rosters by four to 45 players.

The decision threatens to take a significant bite out of a team's special teams players, those men such as Nelms who aren't used on offense or defense. Although Nelms is listed as a wide receiver and practices there in training camp, he hasn't played there in the regular season.

And because dual-purpose players are almost a necessity on a smaller roster, there is a strong hint this summer at Dickinson College that Nelms may be one of the first casualties of the NFL's new rule.

"Coach Gibbs has made mention of the situation," Nelms said. "A lot of people have made mention of it. But it was a 45-man roster when I came into the league and it's back to a 45-man roster now. This isn't really anything that I don't already know."

In the spring, about the time of the team's May minicamp, Nelms met with Gibbs at Redskin Park. Nelms was on his way up the stairs to see special teams coach Wayne Sevier when Gibbs asked him to stop in his office.

"We talked about my playing wide receiver, was that going to continue? The answer was yes. I was told there would be competition (at kick returner). Otherwise, it was just a session to let him know I was still there and for me to know he was still there," Nelms said.

Gibbs has been asked about Nelms a couple times in camp. His answer is fair, measured and decidedly noncommittal.

"Kick returner is very important to us," he said. "We normally figure that in (as one position on the roster). We normally figure three people on special teams: kicker, punter and a return guy."

But then, almost under his breath, Gibbs added: "And hopefully, Mike can fit in someplace else."

Someplace like wide receiver. But Nelms, in his sixth season here after playing three years in the Canadian Football League, is not one of the Redskins' top receivers.

Clark is. Were the Redskins to start the regular season today, Clark, 23, who played at James Madison University, almost certainly would be the third receiver behind Art Monk and Charlie Brown. (Calvin Muhammad has an injured finger and isn't practicing.)

Clark is one of the two or three fastest players on the team. He doesn't have the years of wear and tear Nelms does. And he is considered to be a very good punt returner. In 1983, as a senior at James Madison, he had touchdown runs of 87 and 89 yards on punt returns in the first half of a game with Virginia.

He also returned kickoffs in college and with Jacksonville of the USFL, which is important to the Redskins. If someone is to replace Nelms, it would be nice if he could do both, although the coaches seem convinced running back Keith Griffin can do the job on kickoffs.

There are other permutations. Michael Morton, acquired last week from Tampa Bay, is expected to return kickoffs against the Los Angeles Raiders Sunday. In three seasons, Morton has returned 89 kickoffs for 1,885 yards. Rookie Jamie Harris, who fluttered under his first punt and fumbled it last week at Atlanta, still may return punts, although this appears to be a Nelms-Clark competition.

And, somewhere back in the recesses of the coaches' minds, is Clarence Verdin, who led the USFL in kickoff returns this season as a Houston Gambler. He was the Redskins' third choice in last year's supplemental draft (kicker Tony Zendejas and Clark were the first two picks), although his contract with the other league runs through 1988.

"I think everything is going through our minds," Gibbs said.

Some here appear ready to ship Nelms off on waivers. But others aren't so sure.

"Mike gave us everything he had last year, but injuries hurt our continuity on returns," Sevier said. "We're pleased with Mike. We're just not pleased with our return game."

Nelms averaged 8.7 yards per punt return last season, the fourth-best in the NFC and his third-best average in his five years in Washington. His 20.1-yard average on kickoffs was the lowest of his five seasons, but his combined return yardage (1,288) led the NFC.

To Gibbs, there is perhaps one thing more important than yardage: his confidence in his return man. Gibbs doesn't like fumbles. Thus, he likes Nelms.

"We've got to make sure we don't lose games on special teams before we start winning them with special teams," Sevier said.

All indications are that if Clark can gain Gibbs' complete trust in the preseason, the return job could be his.

But it's not easy to dump a four-time all-pro who helped you to two Super Bowls in a row.

"I know I can play this game. There are a lot of reels of film in there, if anybody's seen them," Nelms said, pointing to the Redskins' offices.

"Let them look at that. If that doesn't do anything for them, then whatever I can say probably wouldn't do any good either. I can't concern myself with things that aren't my decision to make."