Lemar Marshall gathered with the linebackers for his first practice with the Washington Redskins during a 2002 minicamp. Before the workout, the unit loosened up with the linebacker shuffle -- lateral movement to simulate maneuvering around offensive linemen. Instead of going from side to side like everyone else, Marshall backpedaled like a defensive back, his former position, drawing a steady stream of teasing from fellow linebackers.

"Man, you're out of that stage," linebacker Antonio Pierce needled Marshall at the time. Marshall recalled the scene yesterday and smiled. "I guess I was still holding on to my dreams."

The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Marshall had been a safety at Michigan State before converting to linebacker. Although he came into the league in 1999, his first start came Monday during the Redskins' 21-18 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. And that start came only because LaVar Arrington (right knee surgery last week) is injured.

Marshall delivered a couple vicious hits -- one of which sent 6-foot-7, 343-pound left tackle Flozell Adams reeling -- and collected four tackles. And there were no traces of a slim safety with a penchant to backpedal.

Before Arrington's injury, Marshall's niche on the Redskins was special teams. Despite showing flashes of solid play, Marshall viewed his first start critically.

"Even though it was my first game, I've been playing this game for a long time," Marshall said yesterday. "So I have high expectations. I don't settle for less. I want my teammates to be able to count on me. Since LaVar is gone, I don't want anybody to look at me like the weak link."

Arrington aims to make his return against the Baltimore Ravens Oct. 10, a date some view as optimistic. He is the leader of the defense, a perennial Pro Bowler with elite athleticism and a 6-3, 255-pound frame. Although Marshall possesses speed and quickness, he is a stark contrast to Arrington, especially in size. But Marshall has shown that he is physical enough for Gregg Williams's attacking defense.

"You look at his size and he doesn't look like a linebacker but you watch that film from the Dallas game," said Pierce, who is also undersized for a linebacker at 6-1, 235 pounds. "There were about three or four times he laid that fullback on his back. That was big for us stopping the run. [Dallas had 21 carries for 50 yards.] I don't think you should underestimate Lemar because he's backing up Superman.

"I was joking with him earlier, before LaVar got hurt, how physical he's gotten. He's adapted to the linebacker role. Now he's going downhill, hitting guards in the mouth."

Marshall's main weakness is similar to other reserves and players who have bounced around the NFL: consistency.

"He did okay. He stroked some guys the other night," said linebackers coach Dale Lindsey. "But if you ask him, he'd say he can do better. But he didn't do bad. And we think he can play better."

After Marshall graduated from Michigan State in 1999, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as an undrafted free agent to play safety, and placed him on the practice squad. The following year, Marshall underwent the same experience with the Philadelphia Eagles. It was essentially the same story in 2001 when Marshall joined the Denver Broncos. However, the move altered Marshall's NFL career because Denver's coaching staff told him to play outside linebacker on passing situations.

"I didn't have too much leverage," Marshall said smiling, "the way I was bouncing around."

Marshall was released in early September 2001, but he continued his NFL journey as an outside linebacker when he signed with Washington as a free agent on December 26, 2001. Marshall was 218 pounds at the time, and went on a crash diet to increase his weight: Marshall ate four times a day: potatoes, pasta, peanut butter sandwiches and all manner of starch-filled foods.

But after Marshall realized that his body wasn't turning out the way he wanted, the linebacker hired a nutritionist to gain muscle mass.

Before making his first NFL start, Marshall came off the bench in the first two games as an outside linebacker in short yardage and goal-line situations. Marshall gained confidence over the past two seasons by playing in 28 games mainly as the backup to Arrington and Jessie Armstead.

His strength has been versatility: In 2002, Marshall practiced at defensive end, emulating Arrington who was occasionally put in the three-point stance. But Marshall -- who also has experience at middle linebacker -- found his niche in the NFL on special teams, collecting 24 tackles with roles on all four coverage and returns teams and the point-after-attempts unit.

Marshall sees himself as more than a role player. He views Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns as a chance to show that he can be a starter in this league..

"It's another opportunity," Marshall said. "I'm going to take advantage of it. Hopefully, it's enough for us to get a victory."