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Can A Rookie Lead Defense From Safety Spot?

First impressions are generally forgotten in a matter of days at training camp, but sometimes they carry a player a long way. Sometimes the way a player handles the media, or handles a situation, or the way he relates to his teammates helps identify him as a prospect. Nate Allen, all smiles and a bundle of humble confidence as he reported to training camp on Wednesday, projects something special.

It isn't the way he answers questions, although he is well spoken and clearly very intelligent. It isn't the smile, which provides a sense of self-assuredness that has to help in his line of work. Allen has poise and maturity and clearly understands that he has a great "opportunity" in front of him as the Eagles' starting free safety.

And that's all is it, at this point anyway. It is an "opportunity." Allen isn't being handed anything. Oh, he is running as a starter in these scaled-down practices and he is learning on every snap and, honestly, Allen looked great on Wednesday, but the real tests begin on Friday afternoon in a 10-10-10 practice when the tempo increases as the veterans arrive. Third-year man Quintin Demps will be on hand then, still miffed at not taking advantage of his "opportunity" last year to win the starting free safety job and determined to take his game up a level and become the starter there in 2010.

Maybe that happens. Maybe Demps regains the momentum he had as a rookie. It would be great for the team and for Demps to see him blossom. But as it stands now, Allen is earmarked for the free safety position. What he does with it moving forward has to do with how Allen handles it, how the coaches bring him along and how, well, how it all works together.

It is a pretty massive project, installing a rookie into the starting free safety spot.

"I don't see it that way," said defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. "I am a big believer in adapting to the hand that you are dealt and I think that Nate is up to the challenge, I really do. We'll see. He has to earn the spot. He has to earn the trust of the coaches and his fellow teammates and he is willing to do that."

To understand how remarkable it is, from the perspective of the history of this franchise, consider this: The Eagles started Macho Harris at free safety last year in the opener at Carolina, the first time since Wes Hopkins did so in 1983 that a rookie started there. Now, potentially, the Eagles are looking at starting rookies at the position in consecutive seasons.

And, as we all know, free safety is a thinking-man's position. The free safety helps make the checks and the calls and has to be vocal and decisive. Oh, and he has to tackle well, cover sideline to sideline and make virtually no mental mistakes.

"It is a challenging position to come in right away and contribute the way we're looking for Nate to this year, just because of the mental capacity that's involved in the position, similar to linebacker. There are other positions that are maybe easier to make that transition from college," said McDermott. "I think Nate is more than capable."

McDermott cut his coaching teeth in the Eagles' secondary working with Brian Dawkins, a future Hall of Fame safety, and Michael Lewis, who was selected to one Pro Bowl. He now has a rookie to make and mold.

How much of a difference is there coaching a player headed for Canton, Ohio and coaching a player whose head is going to be swimming with the volume of information he has to absorb in such a short time?

"When you are laying the foundation that we are laying for Nate and that he wants to lay for himself, we need to make sure that we are teaching it the right way and that he is learning it thoroughly so that he can go from step one to step two without missing anything," said McDermott. "You treat them the same, but you coach them differently. I've learned that over the years.

"We're going to work with Nate, just like we are working with all of these players."

And they are moving, fearlessly, into the present with a rookie leading the way from the back of the defense. It doesn't happen often, but all of a sudden it could happen two seasons in succession and that is something worth noting from an historical perspective here.

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