Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Life was sweet for Warrick Holdman four years ago. He had helped spur the Chicago Bears to a stunning NFC Central title while approaching Pro Bowl status in just his third season. But in the fourth game of 2002, Holdman ripped up his right knee. He missed the rest of the season and hasn’t been the same force since.

After a down year in Chicago in 2003, Holdman was a salary cap casualty. He signed with Cleveland, for whom he had a solid, if unspectacular, season before being caught up in new coach Romeo Crennel’s roster overhaul. After being a free agent for nearly three months, Holdman has been reunited in Washington with Dale Lindsey, his Bears’ position coach, and Greg Blache, his former coordinator.

“Warrick had his best years under Dale,” Blache said. “Dale is very demanding. … Warrick responds to Dale. Warrick’s talent level hasn’t waned at all. He has quick feet. He’s got toughness. He’s got football instincts. He’s got a lot of moxie to his game.”

But since Marcus Washington (a Pro Bowl choice, 2004) and LaVar Arrington (Pro Bowl from 2001 to 2003) are the Redskins’ outside linebackers, if the 29-year-old Holdman is going to continue as a starter, he’s going to have make a major adjustment to playing in the middle after spending his entire college and pro career on the outside.

“The way a lot of teams are going now the [middle] linebacker has a lot of freedom where you just kind of run to the ball,” Holdman said. “I think any guy can play any position, especially at linebacker. I really don’t know what position [I’ll play], but I’m trying to learn all of them.”

A year ago, Antonio Pierce was in a similar situation, but the career outside linebacker handled the shift to the middle so well that after projected starter Mike Barrow was hurt in July, he stepped in and had a Pro Bowl-worthy year while leading Washington in tackles.

And with Pierce having signed with the New York Giants, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Holdman is perhaps the most qualified of a crew of candidates in the middle that also includes: undersized outside backer Lemar Marshall; 35-year-old Barrow; career special-teamer Brian Allen; raw and oft-injured Clifton Smith, and low-round draft picks Robert McCune and Jared Newberry, the latter another middle neophyte.

“Who’s going to end up being the [middle linebacker], nobody knows,” Blache said. “At this time last year, nobody in the world would have expected Antonio to be the ‘Mike’ backer. He hadn’t been a starter. We moved him inside and he got paid [millions]. Part of that success story might have been the environment created by Dale.”

Pierce’s example encouraged Holdman that he can make a similar transition in assistant head coach Gregg Williams’ aggressive defense. Lindsey said Holdman is a gifted player who will work hard and has the smarts to make the switch if asked. The question is whether Holdman can exude the same leadership that Lindsey said had Pierce at times a couple of steps ahead of the coaches in running the defense in 2004.

“The middle linebacker is kind of the quarterback,” Holdman said. “He helps the D-linemen get to where they need to be and the outside linebackers are going to listen to him to know what they’ve got to do. You get a lot of plays and a lot of glory, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of studying. I’ve got to learn the basics of the defense before I start saying I’m going to be the quarterback.”

Note — The Redskins cut tight end David Kashetta to make room for Holdman, making it six of 12 undrafted rookies signed after last month’s draft who have been let go.

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