Eagles again try to find a replacement for Dawkins

Nate Allen, in action for South Florida, was the Eagles' second-round pick. Now he's starting sooner than expected.
Nate Allen, in action for South Florida, was the Eagles' second-round pick. Now he's starting sooner than expected.
Posted: July 22, 2010

Somewhere in the heat-soaked hills of Lehigh County, the Eagles hope over the next three weeks to find a creature so rare that it surfaces with Halley's Comet-like infrequency: a free safety who can simultaneously play with reckless abandon and steady self-discipline.

Of course, the Eagles once had such a creature. And for the second straight training camp they will try to find a replacement for Brian Dawkins.

Last year's camp exposed two veterans who weren't ready to be Dawkins' heir, and rookie Macho Harris was awarded the job. It didn't work out. This year, another rookie, Nate Allen, will arrive in Bethlehem looking to maintain a grasp on the starting spot he was unceremoniously handed in the spring.

The Eagles wouldn't have promoted Allen, their second-round draft pick, if they didn't believe he was ready. But they won't know what they truly have until he dons the full pads and starts to hit.

"Ideally, you find a guy that's an animal," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said last month during workouts. "But it's hard to find a balance of a guy that's an animal and can function in the defense at the same time. When you put pads on at any position - in particular signal-caller type of positions like safety or middle linebacker - you want to see a player that won't lose his mind."

A year ago, Quintin Demps, once deemed Dawkins' successor by former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, "lost his mind" and then the free safety job. After an off-season in which he claims to have found his psyche, Demps is attempting to win back the starting role.

"Now I'm working from the bottom up," Demps said. "Sometimes that's good."

When the 2010 Eagles open training camp on Monday, there could be as many as seven position battles. Coach Andy Reid likes to say every job is up for grabs, but some are more open than others.

Free safety is there for the taking, especially with a rookie tenuously holding down the position as he heads into his first NFL training camp.

"Am I nervous? Yeah," Allen said. "It's your first NFL training camp. You're just trying to get situated. But once the ball is snapped, it's just like playing football - different level, better guys - but it's still football. That's the way you got to think of it."

The Eagles didn't expend the 37th overall draft pick on Allen - the "Donovan McNabb pick" they received from Washington in exchange for their former franchise quarterback - without expecting him to start at some point. But the day arrived sooner than expected - maybe just a few months sooner - when Marlin Jackson was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon tear.

Jackson, coming off surgeries on both knees in two years, was a free-agent Band-Aid remedy and may not have even made the team. But his injury quickened Allen's learning curve.

"We got to rely on a rookie, and he's got to step up," said Quintin Mikell, Allen's counterpart at strong safety. "I think he's going to get every opportunity. He might have some ups and downs, but he's got to play through that. We got to all rally around him and lift him up. . . . We just can't turn our backs on him."

When Demps and Sean Jones, a free-agent addition, failed to secure the starting free safety spot last August, Harris stepped in. The rookie played cornerback at Virginia Tech and didn't move to safety full time until late in camp. He displayed the necessary assertiveness but was often out of position.

Harris, who was moved to cornerback in May, sees the differences between how Allen and he were brought along.

"I didn't get all this stuff until late in training camp," Harris said. "But he's picking it up in [workouts] and going with it - getting hands on balls, interceptions, pass break-ups. The kid's impressive."

Harris could factor in if Allen falters, but Demps appears to be the main combatant. A year ago, his overaggressiveness eventually cost him the job. He didn't help matters when he said it was "irritating" that he had to start the final preseason game when most of the starters were given the night off.

"I took the off-season and looked back and tried to figure out where I went wrong. What happened? What were the issues?" Demps said. "A lot of time when there was an issue and I stood away I was like, 'It's you.' So I was like, 'Let me fix myself.' "

Demps married his longtime girlfriend, took a humanitarian trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and completed the work to earn his degree from Texas-El Paso. He believes the stability in his off-the-field life will balance the ying (animal) and the yang (not losing his mind) of playing free safety.

But Demps, who can also return kicks and play special teams, may have missed his chance. The Eagles seem confident that the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Allen is ready to unleash his inner beast.

"There's like that noise meter of how far off that scale you can go with a player that can still execute and keep his mind without going crazy," McDermott said. "What I see with Nate is that he appears to be a heady player. But that's all you can evaluate right now."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane.

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