Safety Ifeanyi Ohalete burst out of the tunnel to loud applause from the 80,169 spectators at FedEx Field last Sunday before the Washington Redskins faced the Indianapolis Colts.

"It's nice running out of the tunnel," Ohalete said, "and hearing the fans cheer after your name."

The public-address announcer didn't pronounce the safety's name flawlessly, but he also didn't have the luxury of using the nickname that's become familiar to teammates and coaches: Ifea (pronounced EE-fay).

"It's easier to pronounce it that way," said defensive backs coach George Catavolos, chuckling. "Ever since I've been here, that's what I call him."

Said Ohalete: "Ifea is like an official name for me with the Redskins. But it's really a nickname."

Redskins fans may eventually master the pronunciation of Ohalete's name because the 23-year-old has displaced safety Sam Shade, a starter on defense since 1999.

The switch to Ohalete -- whose name is pronounced Ee-fee-AHN-yee Oh-ha-LAY-tay -- is the first change this season among starters under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. In Ohalete's debut as a starter against the Colts, the second-year player displayed his talents by intercepting a Peyton Manning pass in the fourth quarter, helping the Redskins win, 26-21. Ohalete also had three tackles and one pass deflection.

"That was a big pick," Shade said. "He's made plays, and that's something I've been accused of not doing. And I feel like that's probably the reason he's starting and I'm not."

Ohalete played every game under than-coach Marty Schottenheimer last season, but primarily on special teams. Ohalete's ascension on the defensive unit began this season when he replaced Shade in passing situations. He started the second half against Green Bay two weeks ago, and his rise has been accelerated because of Shade's willingness to give pointers.

"Sam has had so much character," reserve linebacker Eddie Mason said. "There's no ego there. Sam is concerned about this team."

Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, Ohalete returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Saints' lead to 26-21 just before halftime. On the play, Ohalete read the eyes of quarterback Aaron Brooks before stepping in front of wideout Jerome Pathon.

"He's a playmaker," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "He's good right now but he can be one of the best. He might make mistakes but he goes out the next time and makes a play."

Ohalete's instincts for playmaking combined with his athletic skills give the second-year player an edge over Shade, who is a strong defender against the run. Ohalete is one of only three Redskins players on every kick return and kick coverage team.

"He's real instinctive and plays with a lot of passion," said Mason, captain of special teams. "I'm going to miss him out there."

But Ohalete has a lot to learn about the fundamentals that are necessary to consistently make plays. Ohalete is occasionally admonished by the coaching staff for taking the wrong angle when trying to stop the run. The young safety is still learning the offensive tendencies of opponents that Shade had mastered by being in the league for nine years.

"Like every young professional player," Catavolos said of Ohalete, "he needs to study more and be more consistent."

Despite Shade's weakness defending long passes, the Redskins have been among the top defensive teams over the past two seasons. Bailey and fellow cornerback Fred Smoot developed a rhythm and familiarity with Shade that's not yet there with Ohalete.

"That comes in time," Bailey said. "It's been good that we've been able to practice a lot over the last two years. I've played with Sam since I've been here, and I know exactly what Sam is going to do. But we'll be fine in the end [with Ohalete]."

Because the 23-year old is only in his second season, the Redskins believe it's merely a matter of time before Ohalete overcomes his weaknesses to become a stronger safety. Ohalete was one of the best defensive backs in the Pacific-10 Conference during his career at Southern California. But in the fifth game of his senior season, Ohalete broke his right ankle. Originally projected to be picked around the fourth or fifth round of the 2001 draft, Ohalete wasn't selected. Nonetheless, Ohalete had several suitors before signing with the Redskins.

"He has come a long way from a kid who didn't even get drafted," Lewis said. "The fact he's even on an NFL team means Ifea has beaten the odds a little bit."

Ohalete's father is Nigerian, his mother American. His full name means "nothing surpasses God" in a Nigerian dialect. Partly because his nickname is easier to pronounce, friends have been calling him "Ifea" since his childhood. His Redskins teammates are no different, especially since some confess that they aren't sure exactly how to say his name.

But Mason is trying to master his teammate's full name: Ifeanyi Eberechuku Ohalete.

"I asked him what his whole name was," Mason said. "I'm still working on his middle name a little bit."

Safety Ifeanyi Ohalete ran an interception back for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in Week 5.