HERNDON, VA — HERNDON, Va. -- "Do I still feel like a rookie?" Andre Collins mused. "I know I'm supposed to say yes. Let's say I feel like a rookie who has started two games."
When does a blue-chip rookie become a veteran? Does facing the many guns of the San Francisco 49ers turn the college boy into a pro?
The Washington Redskins' No. 2 draft pick (their No. 1 has been traded away the last seven years) is the starting left linebacker, ahead of veterans Monte Coleman, Kurt Gouveia and Ravin Caldwell.
"We were happy with him," linebackers coach Larry Pecciatello said of Collins' performance in San Francisco. "He didn't do anything to make us feel that he wasn't capable."
So Collins will start his third game at RFK Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, which should be easier after grappling with the champs, the premier offensive linemen of the Western world.
Collins isn't sure he'll know the difference. "Actually I wasn't overwhelmed," he said. "I practice every day against some of the best. I didn't feel overmatched."
Collins may find Sunday's game a somewhat more personal experience. He doesn't recall matching up with any particularly formidable 49er. "They gave us so many looks," he said. "I don't remember anybody's number.
"One thing good about being a rookie," Collins said, "is that you don't know who to be impressed by, who's better than whom. In my second start I certainly wasn't qualified to make any comparisons."
The Redskins coaches had comparisons to make after their scouts made Collins their first choice (46th overall) in the college draft. Asked if he was surprised to be starting so soon, Collins said: "I'm always optimistic. From midget football on, I guess, I've always wanted to be the best. I dreamed about being a pro, and once I was at Penn State it didn't seem so unrealistic."
Collins was a consensus All-America and one of the five finalists for the annual Dick Butkus Award to the best college linebacker. Growing from an underclassman safety to a 230-pound linebacker, he made 240 tackles his last two years and blocked three punts as a regular special-teamer.
Collins had five tackles and an assist at his position Sunday and a couple more on kicking teams. "He's a good athlete, fast and fTC smart," Pecciatello said. "Not as strong as he's going to be with maturity."
One of Collins' tackles against the 49ers nailed running back Roger Craig, 4 yards deep. Another hauled down tight end Brent Jones after he'd made 19 yards with a Joe Montana pass.
"My man," Collins said, "and he beat me. It happens."
"He sure did, and I'm glad he said that," Pecciatello said. "He was supposed to take the inside on that play and he didn't. I'm glad he realizes that can happen."
Collins is proud of his mental growth. "In the meeting yesterday I had a feel for the game plan, right away," he said. "Usually it has taken me all week, but I got a good grasp on it."
Redskins game plans, it was suggested, must be much more complex than Penn State's. "Yes," Collins said. "But Penn State's system had a lot of adjustments to learn, a lot of responsibilities. I've graduated from one thinking man's coach to another."
The 12th of 19 children (12 sisters, six brothers), Collins grew up in Cinnaminson, N.J., outside Philadelphia. At Penn State he majored in hospital administration and needs only a semester's internship to complete his degree. "No, none of my family is in that work," Collins said. "It's an original idea. I like to think of myself as a people type person.
"But I'm 22 years old. Who knows what I'll be doing eight years from now? I could be a . . . photographer, or working in a deli."
Or, with his looks, a television personage. But Collins does have a short list of things he doesn't want to do. Like most sons of large families, he went to work young: "Mowing lawns, raking leaves, all that stuff."
During college he worked summers at a trucking company. "I rode the trucks," he recalled, "worked the night shift on the loading dock. I was low man on the totem pole. The foreman was sort of good to me, but I told him after last year that I wasn't coming back.
"Anyway," he concluded, "football is my career now."
*Wayne Davis, the journeyman cornerback who didn't make the final cut, may be back this weekend to reinforce the Skins' secondary, short-handed again.
Safety Clarence Vaughn wrenched a knee in practice yesterday and rookie corner Alvoid Mays' knee was too sore to practice.
Picked up in midseason, Davis was in the last eight games for Washington last year.