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Redskins fans usher in Prime Time era


ASHBURN, Va. - To no surprise, Deion Sanders drew the most attention from the media, the most calls for autographs from the fans and the two biggest ovations of the afternoon yesterday.

The first roar from the 2,800 attending the opening day of Washington's training camp at Redskin Park came when Sanders caught a punt, jogged about 20 yards up the sideline and returned the ball to the long snapper - a rather nondescript play that took on meaning simply because of his name.

Returning punts, however, is part of what Sanders does and what makes him one of the league's most exciting players. The other part comes in the form of defense, where the cornerback drew his second ovation for not playing any against Michael Westbrook.

Westbrook burned Sanders by about 15 yards for a touchdown on a hitch-and-go when the first-team offense met the first-team defense late in the afternoon practice.

Sanders called it his gift to the Redskins fans.

"It feels a little funny though, being in this uniform," said Sanders, who spent the last five seasons playing for the rival Dallas Cowboys. "He's still game-planning me like I'm a Cowboy. I said I'm on your team now, you don't have to pump-and-go me.

"I wanted to give myself a welcome to the fans. I made sure he [Westbrook] took me deep so the fans can say 'OK, we like him now. We beat him.'"

If the number of people screaming his name at the end of practice is any indication, Sanders' plan worked. He was easily the most popular person on the field even though he is teaming with other future Hall of Famers in defensive end Bruce Smith and cornerback Darrell Green, and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in tackle Dana Stubblefield.

Yesterday's practice marked the premiere of the new and probably improved Redskins defense, which also boasts last year's fifth overall pick in cornerback Champ Bailey and free-agent acquisition safety Mark Carrier. Sanders and Green split time at left cornerback, a rotation that will probably continue into the season.

"It is a new day because we have so many free agents," said Green, who enters his 18th season with the Redskins. "It's new hype in the atmosphere. ... This whole atmosphere is so sweet for the community, for our team. I'm just glad to be here."

The defense had the look of a Pro Bowl team despite missing what the Redskins hope will be a future star in No. 2 pick LaVar Arrington, who remained unsigned. Both sides are close and a deal appears imminent but Arrington's loss was noticed yesterday, as was that of starting running back Stephen Davis.

Skip Hicks and free-agent pickup Adrian Murrell split time at running back in place of Davis, who rushed for a team-record 1,405 yards last season.

Davis has declined to sign the team's one-year tender offer worth about $3.5 million in hopes of getting a long-term deal.

"We need Stephen here for him, practicing and getting ready," coach Norv Turner said. "We'll get everyone else ready to do their job, and you can plug him in. But I think from where Stephen is, coming off of injury, and conditioning standpoint, every day he is not here hurts him."

It did not dampen the enthusiasm of the fans, who paid $10 apiece for admission. The Redskins moved their training facility from Frostburg State University to Ashburn in order to make it more accessible to fans, team president Steve Baldacci said.

Baldacci said he was pleased with the turnout, though Redskin Park can hold up to 7,500 fans during the week.

The fans seemed pleased with the product. "I think the people who were in here [yesterday] will walk away feeling they got their money's worth," Turner said.

NOTES: Left tackle Andy Heck missed yesterday's practice and is rehabbing his back injury. ... A couple of firsts of training camp included a scuffle between Stubblefield and rookie Chris Samuels and linebacker Kevin Mitchell intercepting a Jeff George pass. ... Receiver James Thrash had the catch of the day, a 40-yard grab over the outstretched hands of Bailey while getting both of his feet inbounds before falling out. ... The team will start with two-a-day practices today before an intrasquad scrimmage Sunday.

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