Greg Manusky, the starting middle linebacker for the Washington Redskins, no longer sleeps with a football the night before games.

"But I still keep it at my bedside," he said.

And he no longer works himself into such a frenzy before games that it makes him sick to his stomach. At least it happens only rarely now.

But in the past three seasons, few other things have changed about the 6-foot-1, 242-pound former free agent from Colgate who continually impresses his coaches and teammates with aggressiveness and good work habits, as much as solid performance.

"Greg is good for our football team," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "He is a hitter, a knock'em-down type guy. He will play in the game like he practices and he always plays at the top of his ability."

Which is not to say Manusky is the most athletically gifted linebacker in the NFL. But he is gradually establishing himself in the mold of Washington predecessors at the position such as Neal Olkewicz, who played 11 seasons, and Harold "Tank" McLinton, who started for 10.

They too were dependable not flashy, and it seemed there was always someone in preseason camp determined to take their jobs. But on opening day, they were the starters.

"What you want most of any football player is for them not to underachieve," said Washington's defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello. "On Sunday, Manusky gives you everything he has got."

Manusky may be best remembered for the mohawk haircuts he has occasionally displayed, but he is carving a niche in the heart of the Redskins defense as an excellent run defender.

He is fifth on the team with 68 tackles, despite being replaced in passing situations by Kurt Gouveia. When all else seemed to be floundering in a 27-17 Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas, Manusky was second among the Redskins with seven tackles.

In past seasons, Manusky's role against the Dolphins, whom the Redskins play Sunday at RFK Stadium, would have been diminished because the Redskins would use extensive pass defense formations against quarterback Dan Marino.

But this season, with Miami's more balanced attack due to the running of Sammie Smith and run blocking of fullback Tony Paige, Manusky will play a key role.

Preventing the Dolphins from running could produce the not so pleasant position of having Marino throw more passes. But by stopping the run, the Redskins believe they can hurt Miami simply by forcing it to do something it does not want to.

"Their offense is still Marino, but now they are more balanced," said Manusky. "Marino is so hard to sack, but they want to run now. What we can do by stopping the run is take something away from their game plan."

Most players can't wait for games. Manusky gets a thrill preparing for them. A fanatical weightlifter since age 13, Manusky believes in living life only at one speed.

"I don't like getting out of shape even for a week after the season ends," said Manusky. "If I sit around for a week, my body aches. I don't do much of anything in the offseason. I just go right back to lifting weights and get ready to play football."

In college, Manusky said he would sit in class and daydream not just about football, but of lifting weights. Yet, he demonstrated his ethic of doing whatever he starts to the utmost and finished with two degrees -- one in geology and one in education.

Back at Dallas (Pa.) High School, Manusky's coach told his players if they wanted to be good football players, they should sleep with a football. Manusky, wanting every edge, took him literally.

When he got sick before games, it often served as inspiration to teammates to show he was serious and ready to play.

Opponents often find that out on special teams as Manusky carries his all-out enthusiasm downfield on punt and kickoff return units.

"I still love running down the field and hitting anything that moves," said Manusky, who was credited with seven special teams hits against the Cowboys. "I take a lot of pride in special teams. That is one play that can always be something big, either by springing somebody for a big play or by stopping someone else from making a big play."

In the offseason, Manusky had the opportunity to make big plays for another team as the Redskins did not make him one of 37 protected players under Plan B free agency. The Redskins gambled that even if he did receive offers, Manusky would not leave.

"We told him that he was our starting middle linebacker and we didn't think he would go anywhere else," said Gibbs.

Manusky did get offers, reportedly from five teams, and even though he was one of the lowest- paid Redskins at the time, Washington was confident that it knew what meant most to Manusky. The Redskins were right.

"As long as I came back here, I would come back as the starting middle linebacker," said Manusky. "What I want to do is play. Where could I find a better situation than that?"

That attitude is what continues to impress the Redskins about Manusky, who will play Santa Claus at an upcoming party for children whose parents have been killed im military action.

"He is a free agent who is here because of intangibles," said Peccatiello. "He is the type of player who evolves, and that is what he has done here."