Raphel Cherry, after years of being the chasee, is now the chaser, and he likes it.

"I'm a pretty aggressive person," the Washington Redskins' rookie strong safety said yesterday, "so it's fun to get a chance to hit somebody. I want to hit them before they hit me. And the aggressive person is going to win most of the time."

When the Redskins selected Cherry in the fifth round of the 1985 draft, it was a classic case of taking the best available athlete. At 6 feet, 194 pounds, Cherry had been the quarterback at the University of Hawaii, where he threw for more than 5,000 yards and set 29 passing and total offense records.

As a senior, Cherry was named second team all-Western Athletic Conference. Brigham Young's Robbie Bosco was first team.

The Redskins aren't the first team that wanted to move Cherry from quarterback to defensive back. When UCLA and Southern Cal were recruiting Cherry at Washington High School in Los Angeles, they too talked about taking the ball out of his hands. Cherry did not like the idea.

"They asked me to play DB and I said no," Cherry said. "Now, this is what I'm doing for my life and career. College is more getting ready for life and I wanted to play quarterback. But (after college) I had just wanted a chance to play in the NFL, so I thought I would do the best I can and learn all I can."

Cherry also wanted to get away from home. He made the visit to Hawaii "just to look at it," but decided at the last minute to go. "I had a good chance to play as a freshman," Cherry said. "It was a good situation to get away from home and grow up. USC and UCLA are real close and I could go home when I wanted to. But there's a lot of water between Hawaii and home and you can't just hop on the plane all the time."

Cherry has started the last four games at strong safety, after having worked at free safety in training camp. He got his first start because Tony Peters had a groin pull. But Peters has not been able to win back his spot.

"He's an excellent athlete and that's why he's playing so much," said Richie Petitbon, assistant head coach/defense. "He's inexperienced but he's learning all the time. He'll be an excellent football player someday."

Cherry realizes there still is a lot to figure out concerning his new job.

"Right now, it's a learning process and adapting to a new position," he said. "I just told myself that it was going to take time, and that I need to take it day by day. If things go bad, don't get down on yourself. There's a lot to learn and it's still slow."

Petitbon, a four-time Pro Bowl strong safety, likes Cherry, but feels uncomfortable playing someone with so little experience. "To be perfectly honest, he's playing like a rookie," he said. "He's a very intelligent kid and he understands things, but there's so much to learn. He can play either safety spot, but where he winds up, I don't know. I like a lot of things about him. I don't like his inexperience, but there's not much I can do to change that. It's just going to take time."

Both starting defensive tackles missed practice yesterday. Rookie Dean Hamel had the flu, and Dave Butz was with his wife Candyce, who gave birth to their third child, a nine-pound six-ounce boy named Jason.

Quarterback Jay Schroeder, recovering from a cracked rib, took 15 snaps in practice with Babe Laufenberg handling the rest. Coach Joe Gibbs said Schroeder had thrown before practice, had planned to take only 15 snaps and "felt good and threw real well. I think he's fine."

Running back George Rogers practiced but was slowed a bit by the flu. Gibbs said Rogers will start this Sunday at RFK Stadium against Cincinnati and play "as long as he feels good, looks healthy."