CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 6 -- Andre Collins has needed two weeks to show the Washington Redskins he is bigger and better than they perhaps expected. Not only has the linebacker displayed the ability to get downfield with a tight end, but he has held his own against 260-pound guards at the line of scrimmage.
For a team that had only one of the first 75 picks in last spring's NFL draft, the Redskins could not be happier. They believe Collins will play on nickel coverages this season, then could step in opposite Wilber Marshall in Richie Petitbon's 4-3 defense in the next year or so.
Even Collins, who says he still is trying to grasp a dizzying amount of information, is eager for Saturday night's preseason opener against Atlanta in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"It'll be interesting to see how much faith they have in me," he said. "I'll be the first to admit it's been a lot tougher than I expected. Everyone says, 'Oh you came from Penn State, a big football school.' That's true, but what you learn there is nothing compared to everything you have to pick up here."
Two weeks into a training camp that may speed up what Coach Joe Gibbs calls "a period of transition" for the Redskins, Collins may be their best news and the rookie most likely to play regularly in 1990.
But he is not alone. Depending on injuries, the usual numbers crunch and performances during preseason games, as many as six rookies could make the Redskins.
One of those surprises appears to be sixth-round choice Kent Wells, a 290-pound defensive tackle from Nebraska. Wells was the 160th pick of the draft, and all he has done is come to camp and catch almost everyone's eyes.
He has gotten an even longer look because of the holdouts by veterans Darryl Grant and Markus Koch, and at the moment, he is starting in Grant's right tackle spot.
Wells doesn't figure to be there when the regular season begins, but he certainly looks better than the Redskins expected. Coaches have given him high marks in a couple of scrimmage performances, including last Saturday when he had two sacks against the Buffalo Bills.
"He needs to work on everything, but he has improved a lot in just the two weeks he has been here," said line coach Torgy Torgeson. "If he keeps going, he's going to be a good football player."
Torgeson flew to Lincoln, Neb., shortly before the draft to work out the big Cornhusker and said much of what he has seen in camp is no surprise.
"We thought he had a chance to make this team when we drafted him and we think even more of him now," Torgeson said. "He's a tough guy and a good worker. I compare him to Dean Hamel when he came here. They're the same kind of guys, aggressive, strong, playing hard all the time."
Wells seems both puzzled and thrilled by the attention, telling reporters, "I'm just trying to get my feet wet and show the people here I can play. The big difference is technique. In college, you could get away with bad technique and use your body. You can't do that here. Guys are just too strong."
The transition has been even tougher -- and not as successful -- for third-round pick Mohammed Elewonibi. The Redskins say that at 6 feet 4, 282 pounds and with great quickness, he was drafted more on potential than on what he could supply in 1990.
Elewonibi has occasionally been pushed around in practice and in scrimmages during pass-blocking drills. Run-blocking has been a different story. He led a couple of impressive sweeps against the Bills and twice flattened his man in the open field.
The good news is that a shoulder that has been surgically repaired four times has held up well and he clearly has a lot of athletic skills.
"He's what we projected him to be," Gibbs said. "It's going to take some time. He has some ability, but we're asking different things than he was asked in college."
Elewonibi admits as much, saying, "There are a lot of differences and it takes awhile to change things that you've done a different way."
Still, like Collins and Wells, Elewonibi is just about guaranteed a spot on the roster. That is not true of any of the other rookies, although three or four certainly have a chance to make the team.
Quarterback Cary Conklin, a fourth-round draft pick, has looked good at times, but a knee injury has sidelined him at an important point in camp. What is clear is that the Redskins love his arm and believe he has a chance to become a first-rate NFL quarterback.
What is not so clear is how they can keep him on the roster the entire year, although last week's knee injury may force him to undergo an arthroscopic procedure. That would help the roster problem, but it would cost Conklin some valuable preseason playing time.
All the other rookies are long shots, but two of the most impressive have been running back Brian Mitchell (fifth round) and strong safety Ricco Labbe (fourth round).
Mitchell, a converted quarterback from Southwestern Louisiana, is still learning his new position. What had been a mediocre camp looked a lot better Saturday night after he rushed for 33 yards on five carries against the Bills.
That performance won the compliments of a lot of people, beginning with General Manager Charley Casserly and Gibbs. Reggie Branch's season-ending ankle injury has opened up a special teams spot for him, and all he has to do the next month is take advantage of it.
"I think that may be my outlet right now," Mitchell said. "My feeling is you're not going to make it unless they feel there's something you can do to help the team this year. That's what I think I can do."
However, the Redskins have seen enough to keep them interested for the future. He has good hands, runs good pass routes and has been an instinctive runner, bouncing into the line and out to find holes.
His problem with getting the ball is that he is lining up behind Gerald Riggs, Earnest Byner, James Wilder, Kelvin Bryant and Reggie Dupard.
"I try not to think about that," Mitchell said. "It's only natural that you notice the people in front of you, but I can only do what I can do. I can't control what anyone else does."
The man drafted just in front of him was Labbe, the former Carroll High star who played at Boston College. He is 5-11, 202 pounds and has had an impressive camp as a safety and defensive signal caller.
Labbe's problem is that with Alvin Walton, Todd Bowles, Clarence Vaughn and Plan B signee Brad Edwards likely to make the team at safety, Labbe will either have to force a veteran off the team or win a special teams job.
"I think I'm doing all right," Labbe said, "but there's a lot to learn in techniques and that kind of thing. I'm picking it up a little at a time. People say this is a step above college. Well, it's at least two steps. I think I'm playing pretty well, but I need to learn the defense a little faster. When you just know something you can do it. You're not as good a player when you have to stop and think before you do anything."