HERNDON, Va. -- Linebacker Matt Millen couldn't get over Ricky Ervins' reaction the day after he rushed for 82 yards in the second half against the New York Giants last month.
"He came in the next day and said, '56 and 52, they were talking a lot.' He really didn't even know who they were. They were numbers. That's great," Millen said.
The numbers were Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson, two Giants players who usually don't need an introduction.
That's an example of the smoothness with which Ervins has made the transition to pro football. To him, football is football. "He doesn't realize he's not supposed to be doing this well," Millen said.
Ervins, who is likely to make his first start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, is on the verge of becoming the most productive rookie running back Joe Gibbs has had in his 11 years as head coach.
Although Earnest Byner put on the pads yesterday, he couldn't participate in the offensive drills.
Byner hopes to practice by tomorrow and refuses to rule himself out of the game, but he still is listed as doubtful with a knee sprain he suffered against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
That's why Ervins is expected to be the first rookie running back to start for Gibbs since Jamie Morris started the final four games of the 1988 season.
"Starting is everybody's dream, but I haven't been told anything," Ervins said. "It's a good feeling, but I'll keep a low profile all week. This is no big deal. Whether I start or not, this is still Byner's spot."
Morris gained 437 yards as a rookie, a figure that Ervins, who has rushed for 383 yards, should surpass this week.
Only two other rookies -- Keith Griffin in 1984 (408) and Timmy Smith in 1987 (126) -- rushed for more than 100 yards as a rookie in the regular season under Gibbs.
The most spectacular effort by a rookie was Smith's record 204 yards against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII in his first start. Smith, though, lasted only one more year with the team.
Ervins, by contrast, seems to have the maturity to be a fixture in the lineup for a long time.
"He's got a good sense of humor, he's bright and he's very conscientious," Gibbs said. "He's a hard-working, no-nonsense guy. When he makes a mistake, he gets upset about it. He's a very driven guy. I think he wants to be successful. When you look at his athletic ability, he's got a real burst and he's made big plays since he's been here."
A third-round draft choice out of Southern California, Ervins slipped through the first two rounds because he was slowed by an ankle injury his senior year.
Millen saw him play in college and isn't surprised to see him do well.
"I liked Ricky right from the start," Millen said. "He's got quickness and he's a smart, strong kid with a great attitude."
The defensive players he works against in practice seem to be impressed with him.
Safety Brad Edwards said: "He's hard to tackle because he's not dipping and dodging. He's going full speed and he's tough to get your hands on."
At 5 feet 7 and 200 pounds, he's not small. He's just short.
Linebacker Monte Coleman said: "He's got a very unique running style. He's hard to compare to anybody. He runs hard, and he's not afraid to hit in there."
NOTES: Besides Byner, DL Charles Mann (knee), WR Gary Clark (hamstring) and OL Russ Grimm (ankle) couldn't practice, and WR Ricky Sanders (hamstring) was able to go only part time. . . . TE Ron Middleton (calf), who left the locker room Sunday on crutches and was listed as questionable, was able to practice and said he'd be able to play.
Redskins rookie rushers
Since Joe Gibbs became the head coach in 1981, six rookie draft choices have rushed in the regular season for the Redskins. Here's how they have fared:
Name..... ..... Year... Carries... Yards... Avg.
Keith Griffin..... 1984........ 97..... 408... 4.2
Timmy Smith....... 1987........ 29..... 126... 4.3
Jamie Morris...... 1988....... 126..... 437... 3.8
Mike Oliphant..... 1988......... 8...... 30... 3.8
Brian Mitchell.... 1990........ 15...... 81... 5.4
Ricky Ervins...... 1991........ 69..... 383... 5.6