CARLISLE, PA., JULY 26 -- Jimmie Johnson remembers standing alongside Keith Jackson and telling himself: "We're about the same size. We have about the same speed. And I can probably catch anything he can catch. The difference is that he went to Oklahoma and was a first-round draft pick."

The scene was a 1988 fraternity party on the Howard University campus. Jackson was an all-pro tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Johnson was about to begin his senior season at Howard. What they had in common that day was not much more than membership in Omega Psi Phi.

If the Redskins can fantasize about other similarities these days -- "I don't want to say too much this early," Coach Joe Gibbs said, "but he could be one of those {Kellen Winslow-type} guys every team is looking for" -- they certainly couldn't then.

Scouts had timed Johnson at a plodding 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash and lost interest. In fact, he was thought so little of that he couldn't get an invitation into any of the prominent postseason tryout combines.

When the Redskins used a 12th-round pick (316th overall in 1989) on him, no eyebrows were raised.

Spin ahead two summers and a lot has changed for Johnson. He came out of the usual forest of free agents and draft picks last summer to make the Redskins "after not dropping a single pass all camp," he said.

He has been shifted from tight end to H-back -- a Redskins hybrid position that is a combination running back, tight end and wide receiver -- to take full advantage of his pass-catching talents and 6-foot-2, 246-pound body. Three days into a long season, the Redskins appear to have written Johnson prominently into their 1990 screenplay.

"If he continues to come along, it could be great for us," Gibbs said. "He's had an important year of experience and he just looks like one of those guys who'll get into the end zone for you."

Johnson was in there twice in the first scrimmage, a 12-12 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday. He fended off two defenders and grabbed a 38-yard prayer from Stan Humphries for one, then beat his defender on a slant to get an eight-yarder from rookie Cary Conklin.

He followed that performance with a terrific practice today, twice streaking downfield, getting a step on defenders and hauling in touchdown passes.

"I came here wanting to show what I can do," he said. "It's too early to get excited, but I want to be out there."

Last season was different. He had to crawl before he could run and that meant working his way up the special-teams ladder, and finally seeing time at both H-back and tight end. And the more the Redskins saw, the more they liked. They saw a big, acrobatic kid who had a terrific attitude, ran decent routes and had beautifully soft hands.

He didn't have the blocking skills they wanted in a tight end, but he had enough other things to keep them interested. "Potential" was a word that kept coming up.

Then in the 10th week of the season, almost everyone else noticed him.

His spinning, one-handed grab of a Doug Williams fourth-down pass against the Eagles is a feature of the Redskins' highlight film and made almost all the highlight shows that night. It was one of only four catches for him the entire year, but it stuck in the minds of some of his coaches who believe he has a chance to have a big-time career.

Gibbs liked that, but said Johnson learned a lot more this summer "when he worked as hard as anyone. When last season ended, I joked I probably wouldn't see him again. But he took getting ready seriously, and you can tell more about a guy in the offseason than you can out here now."

Johnson wore a happy smile this afternoon after leaving a session in which coaches praised not only the first touchdown catch, but also his run blocking in a morning practice against the Steelers.

"I want to show them I can do anything they ask of me," he said. "Last year it was my hands people talked about. I think the coaches take it for granted that I can catch the ball. I want to show them I can block, which was my problem. I don't want to be known as a player that can do just one or two things."

He's one of several youngsters who will make the final cuts very tough. Shifting him from tight end removes him from the competition with Don Warren, Mike Tice, Ron Middleton and others.

But at H-back he's competing not only with Terry Orr and Plan B signee Ken Whisenhunt, but the Redskins' new offense.

He may line up most of the time when the Redskins are in their traditional one-back set, but Gibbs said he may use three wide receivers 60 percent of the time. In those formations, Ricky Sanders is the H-back.

Still, his career is not off to a bad start, not for a 12th-round pick who grew up in Augusta, Ga., played football and basketball at Howard and once wondered how much of a chance he'd get to play in the NFL.

"I wanted to play more last year, but Coach Gibbs had a lot of people for those spots," Johnson said. "I think I did pretty well for the number of plays I ran. I finished fourth on the special teams in tackles, so I didn't look at it like I had no rookie year. This year I'm in better shape and really think bigger and better things are in store for me."

He ended up at Howard because "my high school coach and {former Howard coach Willie Jeffries} were good friends," he said. "I didn't know where it was. They told me it was in Washington, and I thought they meant Washington state. I worried that no one would ever hear of me again. I didn't think pro scouts would come to a small black college and look for players. The coaches convinced me that if I was there, they'd find me."

Talking about Howard, which he still visits, brings a mixture of bitterness and fondness to his voice. He voices many of the concerns about sports there that Jeffries had.

"Athletes were kind of ignored," he said. "Our dorms weren't all that great. We hardly had a weight room. We didn't have a training table."

He knows first-hand about the frustrations that led to Jeffries' resignation and said the things they're doing for "Coach {Steve} Wilson are the things that Coach Jeffries asked for every year. . . . But I'm not complaining. I love that place. I made a lot of friends and if I had it to do all over again, I'd do it the same way."

It also meant he only had a few miles to drive after the 1989 draft -- "I didn't have to go to a strange city and make new friends. I still have my friends from college and I knew how to get to Redskin Park."

The son of a lifetime Proctor and Gamble employee, Johnson grew up in a part of Augusta far from Augusta National Golf Club. "All I really know about the place is that you stay away when the Masters is going on," he said. "You get into that traffic and you'll never get out."

The Redskins like him, not only because of his size and speed, but also his easygoing personality. He may drive a Jaguar, but there's also enough 12th-round pick in him to be awed by his circumstances. And the possibilities that lie ahead.

"I'm very excited about this season," he said. "I think I'm going to get a chance to show what I can do. It helps with a year under your belt. Last year I had to work just to make the team. This year I think they're going to use me when they need me."