Lemar Marshall and Antonio Pierce formed a bond starting in 2001 as undrafted outside linebackers chasing their NFL dreams by finding a niche on special teams. Last season, Pierce became a starter at middle linebacker and flourished in place of the injured Mike Barrow. Marshall also lost his anonymity, filling in at weak-side linebacker for injured star LaVar Arrington.

Midway through the season, Marshall developed a habit of sneaking peaks to the sideline, in between plays, to observe the calls coaches sent to Pierce. Because of their friendship -- they were road roommates -- the pair studied together, and an inquisitive Marshall grilled Pierce about the intricacies of playing middle linebacker. Occasionally at practice, linebackers coach Dale Lindsey replaced Pierce with Marshall.

Pierce left the Redskins for NFC East rival New York after his play resulted in a lucrative contract. Now, the Redskins have given Marshall the first crack at replacing his friend in the most competitive training camp battle.

"We became close after playing so much on special teams over the years and studied together," Pierce said yesterday in a telephone interview from Albany, N.Y., where the Giants hold training camp. "Last year, after he took over for LaVar, he wanted to get more comfortable in there with me. So he listened to me a lot calling the plays. Then in practices, when I got a little breather, Dale Lindsey would put him in.

"There's a lot of studying for the position. But it should be a lot smoother for [Marshall] than the other outside linebackers. He's hungry like I was. He will do fine."

The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Marshall, who has kept in touch with Pierce, will have to fend off a coterie of viable candidates, including Warrick Holdman, Clifton Smith and rookie Robert McCune. Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, said this week that several linebackers have started politicking for the spot.

Before joining the Redskins in December 2001, Marshall's well-traveled career took him to Tampa Bay, Denver and Philadelphia. Marshall has been a versatile defender since joining the NFL in 1999 as a converted safety from Michigan State.

Marshall has some experience at cornerback, safety and defensive line and has played both outside linebacker spots. Before starting for Arrington, Marshall was on all four coverage and return units on special teams, plus the point-after unit.

Marshall hasn't played middle linebacker since youth football. "I skipped that spot," Marshall said yesterday, chuckling. Still, Williams believes Marshall's diverse background, particularly at defensive back, provides another advantage.

"We want linebackers that can play more than one position," said Williams, who plans to shift around Marshall even if he wins the starting job. "From a linebacker's point of view, guys that I've always enjoyed coaching are those linebackers that have defensive back skills and defensive back movements, but linebacker personalities.

"Our [middle linebacker] runs. He's got to be a great runner. We think Lemar fits pretty well in that."

Marshall -- whose pass coverage should be an improvement over Pierce -- has good speed and quickness. Last season, Marshall also displayed a physical side that included 82 tackles -- many on jarring hits -- while starting 14 games.

Although Pierce was the leading tackler on the third-ranked defense last season, his best quality was mastering Williams's complex, at times esoteric, schemes. The middle linebacker has the most responsibility for aligning teammates after deciphering offensive formations, and the position is especially challenging in Williams's system. Up to 16 formations are used, and schemes are disguised by moving players into unconventional sets, making it difficult for offenses to identify blitzers.

"You have to almost be the mother out there," said outside linebacker Marcus Washington, who added that Marshall has become more assertive since the switch. "It's a pretty big responsibility. You have to worry about a lot of people, then yourself. But Lemar is a smart guy. The coaches know that. He pretty much does whatever he's called upon to do."

Listed at 6-1, 240 pounds last season, Pierce was considered undersized in the middle. Marshall is less bulky and has no plans to gain weight. After joining the Redskins, he had a bad experience trying to bulk up to play linebacker. Marshall had been 218 and ate four meals a day, primarily starch-filled foods such as peanut butter sandwiches. "I ate everything in the book," Marshall said, "and came out on the field and felt like crap."

Instead of trying to get bigger, Marshall enacted a strict protein-rich diet over the summer to gain muscle mass. "I am what I am," said Marshall, who eats lots of red meat and fish while limiting junk food. "If I gain, I gain, but it's not about your weight. It's about your heart."

Lemar Marshall, above, will try to fill the role his good friend, Antonio Pierce, held last year.