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Time For Young Players To Show Their Stuff

BETHLEHEM, Pa. --All they need is a chance. You hear players say it all the time. Give me a chance. Let me show what I can do. With the Eagles falling left and right because of injuries, some young Eagles have the chance on Thursday night to show this coaching staff that they are ready for the prime time right here, right now.

Take Joe Mays, for instance. A year ago he was a sixth-round draft pick who emerged in the preseason as a player to watch. He was a tackling machine, and he created a buzz among Eagles fans as "The Headbuster" at linebacker. And then Mays disappeared when the regular season rolled around, creating a different kind of buzz.

Is Joe Mays good enough to play at the NFL level?

We're going to find out. Mays is the starter at middle linebacker with Stewart Bradley out, and Mays walked off the field after Monday afternoon's practices excited about what waits.

"Of course I am," he said. "It's a great challenge and I'm ready for it. I have never been in a position at this level, obviously, where I had to learn the defense so thoroughly and quickly. I've learned I'm able to pick things up very quickly. When you face a little of adversity, you have to overcome it. I had the defense in my grasp coming into camp. It's a totally different situation when you are out there so much more now. You can learn it in the classroom and think you have it in your head, but the only way to truly know it from top to bottom is to then go out and execute the defense.

"I feel like I'm coming along pretty well. I know this is a learning situation. I think Coach (Sean) McDermott wants to me to learn. He doesn't want me to just know 'regular' (base personnel grouping). He wants me to learn everything there is to know, and that is what these preseason games are all about."

Sure is. The players learn about playing at this tempo in game situations. The coaches learn about how the players react to the pace and the changing picture.

And then both sides go over what happened in the game and make corrections for the following week.

A player who enjoys the chance to benefit from the spate of injuries is Bryan Smith, the second-year defensive end who was inactive for all of last season. He has gone from a 218-pound college end to a 248-pound player here, and Smith has had the usual ups and downs of a second training camp. With Trent Cole sidelined for Thursday's game with a shoulder injury, Smith's reps increase. Same with Jason Babin, a former No. 1 draft pick.

The reality is that both players could be fighting for a single roster spot should the Eagles keep six defensive ends.

That's the way it is up and down the roster. Winston Justice may be the most improved player in this training camp, largely because he has taken advantage of the added practice reps created by the injury to Shawn Andrews. A month ago Justice would have been voted by the fans as a sure-thing cut some time before the Eagles reached the 53-man roster limit. Now Justice is the starting right tackle and he is grading higher than any lineman on a daily basis.

On Thursday, Justice has the chance to go out and do it in a game. And a good performance by Justice would be huge for an Eagles offensive line that looked great on paper entering camp, but has since become the team's largest question mark because of the injuries to Andrews, to Jason Peters, to Stacy Andrews.

"I feel good out at right tackle and I think I've improved a lot," said Justice, who has become one of line coach Juan Castillo's pet projects, working early and late during the practice day. "Every day I think I'm getting better. I have to keep at it. I know that it's a matter of being consistent every time I'm on the field."

What is the difference with Justice? More punch. More urgency. Better conditioning. Definitely a sense of urgency. Justice is a right tackle, simply put. The experiment at left tackle failed. His chance to make it is at right tackle, and he has played well in camp there.

Having increased practice reps has been a huge boost for LeSean McCoy, the 53rd pick in April's draft. Already, McCoy has a superb understanding of the offense. When he starts at halfback on Thursday night, McCoy is not going to dip his toe in the scheme. He is going in head first, with the expectations of making a lot of plays.

"Excited, but we're not there yet," said McCoy. "Camp is going well. I'm getting great coaching. I feel good out there. It's football, when it comes right down to things. I know the offense pretty well, but that is going to improve."

How about tight end. Someone named Rob Myers is here, No. 85, the guy who doesn't yet have his name stitched on the back of his uniform. Yet Myers is running and catching passes and battling for some recognition. He and Eugene Bright, a rookie who played defensive end at Purdue last year, are trying to turn around the odds and make the 53-man roster.

It is an amazing league, really ...

You see it up and down the lineup. Matt Nagy has been a coaching intern for training camp the last few years, the guy who throws fastballs to wide receivers to warm them up and get them ready for practice. With Kevin Kolb injured for the game, Nagy will have his "Invincible" moment and the former University of Delaware star will be the team's third quarterback. At age 31, Nagy -- a veteran of the Arena League -- gets perhaps his one and only shot.

It is a great story and you wish Nagy the best. He may or may not play. Donovan McNabb starts and is likely to play a series or two. Then it is A.J. Feeley's turn and Feeley would love to play the rest of the game. Nagy is there as an emergency quarterback.

At a time when the Eagles -- like most NFL teams -- are battling the injury bug, the depth is tested. Young players must prove their mettle. That is the essence of the preseason games, anyway, and Thursday night is one for the kids to step up and show they can get the job done and take advantage of their reps.

Nothing secretive about it. The Eagles' ranks are thinned at some positions, and the coaches have a chance to find out what they really have behind the starters. Thursday night, the preseason opener, is going to be very, very interesting from start to finish for that very reason.

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