The drive from State College to Philadelphia is only a 3-hour-or-so trek down Route 322 and east on the turnpike.

For Tony Hunt, it might as well have been across the Atlantic. The Penn State running back went from savvy upperclassman to pigskin infant in the span of an NFL draft, dropped into a foreign land where people talked football in an unfamiliar language and played it differently, too.

"Everything is completely different from what I did in college, the terminology and everything," Hunt said of his switch from Happy Valley to Eagledom. "It's like learning a new language. First, you have to learn what they're talking about, then you have to figure out how to do it."

Like a baby graduating to toddler, Hunt has learned to speak the language, taken his first unsteady steps, and now is ready to walk unassisted, maybe as soon as Sunday. Backup running back Correll Buckhalter is sidelined with a concussion. He didn't practice yesterday and said he didn't pass a baseline concussion test. Buckhalter said he doesn't expect to play against Dallas. If he's out, Hunt, who has been activated for only six of 13 games, could get his most significant action of the season.

"It's just numbers," coach Andy Reid said of Hunt's limited appearances. "He's good enough to be in there playing."

Which begs the question a lot of people have asked: Why isn't he playing?

The answer is more an all-of-the-above than a simple choice. In part, it is because he is behind Brian Westbrook and Buckhalter. In part, it is because Hunt, targeted as a short-yardage guy, has been caught in a numbers crunch as the coaching staff juggles the roster for special teams.

But the true answer is because the Eagles don't place a lot of faith in rookie running backs. They are a pass-first, pass-second, pass-third team, necessitating backs who know how to pick up blitzes.

Most rookies don't figure that out right away.

"His struggles have been typical of any rookie," Westbrook said. "The pass protection is a big thing. Trying to get out there and see who you have to block, especially with the different audibles a quarterback can make, the different line calls that the line can make, as well as the different defenses. It's a lot of things to think about while also thinking about what you have to do to try to counterbalance those things."

Westbrook speaks from experience. He played more than Hunt his rookie season, active for every game save one that he sat out with an ankle injury, but he finished with only 46 carries on the season, never more than eight in a game.

To be sure, the stagnant workload is an adjustment for anyone used to getting the ball, Hunt included. The third-round pick left Penn State as the school's all-time leader in rushing attempts (654), which is saying something for a school that is as averse to throwing the ball as the Eagles are in love with it, and second in rushing yards with 3,320.

Now Hunt has 10 carries for 16 yards to show for his first NFL season.

Perhaps the best news for the Eagles is that of all the people questioning why Hunt isn't playing, Hunt isn't one of them. Far from disgruntled, he understands what's going on and is grateful for the time he's had to learn.

"I'd rather be patient and learn how to do things right than rush out there and make mistakes," Hunt said. "You have to understand what the system is. Some teams can play a rookie back and keep him out of passing situations. Others can't. Here, it's about learning pass protection, so you have to be patient."

The question is, what happens now if Hunt gets his chance? Westbrook said there is a decided Catch-22 to contend with, of a guy who needs to be groomed, but also needs experience.

"Tony is going to have his work cut out for him, because he hasn't been out on the field very much," Westbrook said. "He's been doing a lot of the scout-team reps and not very many of the offensive reps. He has to learn on the fly."

It's a problem Hunt welcomes. He has spent extra time in team meetings this week and made sure to get in extra work with running backs coach Ted Williams.

"I'll be ready," Hunt said, and then he smiled as he considered the prospect of playing more. "I'll be fine." *