- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Washington Redskins tackle Jon Jansen remembers plenty of excitement when he started the 1999 opener as a rookie, not to mention a few mistakes.

"Oh yeah," Jansen said with a laugh yesterday. "I haven't had a game yet where I haven't made a mistake. I'm still working on that one."

That makes the performance of the Redskins' three rookies even more impressive in the 2001 opener. Wide receiver Rod Gardner had five catches, cornerback Fred Smoot had an interception and right guard David Brandt held his own before leaving in the third quarter with a sprained knee.

Gardner, Smoot and Brandt comprised one of only two rookie trios to start in Week 1, along with Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren, wide receiver Quincy Morgan and running back James Jackson. And they marked the Redskins' first opening day rookie threesome since 1997, when defensive end Kenard Lang, linebacker Derek Smith and guard Brad Badger started.

Even more noteworthy was the specific starting status of Brandt, an undrafted rookie out of Michigan. Brandt is the NFL's only undrafted rookie to start this season and the Redskins' first since 1994, when defensive tackle Lamar Mills got an opportunity because of injuries.

For Brandt to play as an undrafted rookie is "tremendous," said Jansen, who started on the same Michigan line as Brandt in 1998 before starting all 16 games as a rookie for the Redskins in 1999.

"It just shows the kind of mental toughness he has, the kind of desire he has to play the game and be successful," Jansen said.

To Brandt, the fact that he started wasn't that big a deal.

"I did pretty good," summed up Brandt, who is friendly enough but not terribly effusive.

However, it is that mentality that allows Brandt, Gardner and Smoot to be successful. None of the three is taking any success or failure too seriously, allowing each to improve steadily while enduring the ups and downs of a rookie season.

Brandt, for instance, had consecutive penalties in the second quarter of Washington's 30-3 loss at San Diego a holding call and a false start. But he stayed calm and made a nice block on the next series to help spring running back Stephen Davis for 15 yards on a screen pass.

"Young players … have to have an ability to start not a physical ability but a mental ability that 'I'm not going to let things bother me if I make errors,' " coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "[Brandt's] got that mentality like Fred. Now he's not that personality, but he's got that mentality. [That] I think is as important to a young player as skill."

Making Brandt's start in Week 1 more impressive is the fact that Schottenheimer considers the offensive line one of the most difficult positions to adjust to as a rookie behind perhaps only quarterback.

"Things happen in there so quickly. If a [defender] moves in there that far," Schottenheimer said, holding his hands about a yard apart, "it may change the blocking scheme."

All that said, Brandt won't necessarily start tomorrow night at Green Bay. He has practiced this week despite his sprained knee, but the setback continues to worry Schottenheimer enough that Matt Campbell might open the game at right guard. Nonetheless, all signs point to long-term success for Brandt.

"I think David's got a lot of ability," veteran left guard Dave Szott said. "He's a big, strong guy, and he's probably going to play guard a long time in this league."

Gardner and Smoot are showing similar potential. Although Gardner often was a late option in the quarterbacks' reads at San Diego evidenced by his 7.4-yard average per reception he did lead the team with five catches. Meanwhile, Smoot's interception and overall competency in his debut impressed because he was expected to be targeted in the secondary.

Smoot's pick came on a deep pass over the middle. Wide receiver Curtis Conway seemed to have Smoot cleanly beaten, but the cocky young corner quickly closed the gap.

"We always joke that the only time you have to have him covered is when the ball gets there, and that's what happened," Schottenheimer said. "He was beaten, but you're not beaten until the ball gets there. As he gains more and more confidence, if that's possible, he's going to continue to grow and grow."

Tomorrow night will be a stiffer test for the rookies, with the talented Packers the opponent and emotionally charged Lambeau Field on "Monday Night Football" the venue. Schottenheimer, however, doesn't appear to have any apprehension about relying on his youthful trio.

"Your confidence is kind of like a vapor: It's there and then it's not there," Schottenheimer said. "But when you have players that have the mentality that 'I'm not going to let my errors bog me down,' then you're more inclined to put them in there. You don't worry so much about them losing their confidence."

Note The decision to start Brandt or Campbell will be a game-time announcement. Otherwise the Redskins' roster is healthy. Linebacker Robert Jones likely will be activated after sitting out the opener with a sprained knee, and two Redskins who battled flu-like illnesses linebacker LaVar Arrington and fullback Bryan Johnson are ready to play.

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