- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Alex Sulfsted's training camp began with the suicide of a close friend. The young Washington Redskins offensive lineman returned right after the funeral, but things didn't get much easier. Over the last five weeks he has rotated through four different positions, injured a hand and an ankle and suffered a concussion. Now he's in a fierce battle for the ninth and 10th offensive line spots the latter of which might not even exist if the Redskins keep more players at another position.
"There have been a lot of distractions for me," Sulfsted said in a sizable understatement yesterday.
Sulfsted's story, minus the tragedy, is being repeated around the NFL this week as teams prepare to make final cuts by Sunday. While most Redskins starters try only to stay healthy in tomorrow's preseason finale against the New England Patriots, Sulfsted and his less-heralded teammates will make one last thrust to prove they belong among the final 53.
"It's very big for them, very hard for us," offensive line coach Kim Helton said. "When you've got two guys who are almost even, it's difficult to pick. We've got several of those situations."
The Redskins' final roster will come down to choices like whether to keep a 10th offensive lineman, a sixth running back, a sixth wide receiver or a ninth defensive lineman. Coaches must weigh whether a player can contribute at his position, back up several spots or participate on special teams or whether his potential makes him worth protecting for a season. Each game week, there are eight inactives, anyway.
The most intriguing battles appear to be at running back and on the defensive line. At the former, Kenny Watson and Robert Gillespie look sharp as they fight for perhaps only one spot. On the defensive line, it seems tackle Donovan Arp or seventh-round end Greg Scott, both of whom have enjoyed solid preseasons, will depart.
Complicating the running back situation is the battle to become the No.1 kickoff returner. Watson is the second-string tailback but appears to be behind Gillespie on kickoffs; rookie Ladell Betts is ahead in neither category but will make the team because he was a second-round draft pick. Betts, like first-round quarterback Patrick Ramsey, has shown potential but essentially was guaranteed a spot by his big signing bonus.
"There's nothing I can do about [Betts]," said Watson, an undrafted rookie in 2001. "He got drafted. He's going to be on the team. The only thing I can control is what I do out on the field."
Gillespie is an undrafted rookie out of Florida, where he was guided by Redskins coach Steve Spurrier. However, Gillespie reiterated what became clear when former Florida star Reidel Anthony was cut Sunday.
"Us being Gators had nothing to do with us making the team no matter what anybody else thought," Gillespie said. "We realize Coach Spurrier has a job to do. He's going to keep the best guys that are going to make him a winning coach. You have to respect that and realize that all you want is a fair opportunity to make the team."
Watson looked impressive in last weekend's win at Tampa Bay, rushing four times for 20 yards and a touchdown in the first half (when the starting units played) and crunching several Bucs with his blocks. But Gillespie averaged eight yards a carry in the second half and caught three passes. If he is substantially better on kickoffs tomorrow night, he might stay while Watson departs.
Or both might stay. If Washington doesn't protect the promising but raw Darnerien McCants with a sixth wide receiver spot, there might be room for Watson and Gillespie. The same could happen if the numbers play out on the offensive line and, in fact, the indications are that Washington will only keep nine at that spot.
Such variables have players like Sulfsted and defensive end Otis Leverette returning from injury for late pushes. Leverette, who had been out since the second week of camp with a sprained knee, is back in individual drills although he can't play tomorrow. But that probably isn't enough he is viewed as an athletic prospect with pass-rush potential, but Ladairis Jackson and Scott emerged in that mold while he was injured.
Sulfsted, meanwhile, tried to practice last week after suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh but had severe aftereffects extreme sensitivity to light and tunnel vision. He had to sit out Saturday's game and now isn't getting extra consideration for his troubles.
"You have to evaluate everything, and it comes down to you can't get a concussion," Helton said bluntly. "Give the other guy a concussion."
Early this week, Sulfsted was scheduled to start at left tackle for Chris Samuels, but yesterday Helton said he was leaning toward starting sixth-round pick Reggie Coleman. Both, however, will play extensively.
The uncertainty fits well for the 24-year-old out of Miami (Ohio). Sulfsted has been in something of a fog ever since the concussion, and now he's got too much work to spend time deducing the numbers game.
"I don't even know if there's even a spot out there to fight for, but I'm going to fight to stay here," Sulfsted said. "And the other teams scout these games also."

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