THE REPORTERS were stacked deep into the NovaCare corridor, counting down the minutes until 1 p.m. Seldom has the start of a full-team Eagles minicamp in June provoked this much punctuality.

Unless you're there to take pictures or shoot video, which must be done early in the workout, the usual goal is to get to the field about half an hour before practice ends and the press conferences start. Watching players work out in short pants, with no pads, remains interesting just about that long.

Yesterday, though, the interesting part came early.

Word finally came down from the team's public relations department:

"Release the hounds!" (Or words to that effect.)

The media gaggle pressed through the doors and into the afternoon sunshine. Quickly, reporters scanned the fields for the white-jerseyed defensive backs. They were drilling on the main field, parallel with Broad Street, closest to the practice facility. Let's see, count the cornerbacks: There's No. 21, 22, 24, 35, 41, and 42. Twenty-six? Anybody see No. 26?

No Lito Sheppard.

The disgruntled cornerback's absence from this first day of voluntary offseason practice, which he cannot be fined for missing, was no big deal, insisted coach Andy Reid and several of Sheppard's teammates. And it might not have been - cornerback Sheldon Brown, Sheppard's buddy on the field and off since they both arrived in the 2002 draft, was asked if he expected Lito to be on hand when veterans report for actual training camp at Lehigh on July 24.

"Oh, yeah," said Brown, indicating this was because you get fined if you're under contract and you don't show up for training camp. Brown added that he and Sheppard have been working out together, and, "He's fine, he's good . . . He's getting in shape, I can count on him to be on that field."

More surprising was the absence yesterday of reserve offensive lineman Scott Young, who apparently is dissatisfied with his situation. Young, a fifth-round draft choice in 2005, was the top offensive-line reserve in 2006. Last season he slipped behind Max-Jean Gilles and Nick Cole at guard. Reid said he'd had "communication through both agents" about the missing players, but he gave no details. Young's agent, Jeffrey Courtney, did not return calls from the Daily News.

Free safety Brian Dawkins recalled that in his first 3 years with the Eagles, when Ray Rhodes was head coach, veterans routinely skipped voluntary minicamp.

"Guys would not even come, period. Or they would come for a couple of days and miss the whole next week," Dawkins said. "This is nothing really new to me, when it comes to guys not coming. It's a voluntary thing."

If Sheppard shows at Lehigh, unaccompanied by fatigues, headphones or Drew Rosenhaus, maybe this whole "big happy family" cornerback concept can work, the Eagles trying to shoehorn prize free-agent acquistion Asante Samuel in ahead of Sheppard and Brown.

There was no indication yesterday of what Sheppard is thinking. We know that he is dissatisfied with the contract extension he signed in 2004, that runs through 2011, and that he expected to be traded by the April draft. When that didn't happen, he showed up for mandatory minicamp the next week, and seemed ready to try to make the best of an awkward situation.

One of Sheppard's agents, Peter Schaffer - who definitely is not to be confused with Rosenhaus - politely took a call from a Daily News reporter, mostly to explain that he had nothing to say.

"I'm going to have to say 'no comment,' '' Schaffer said. "The less I say in the media about Lito, the better."

Although Terrell Owens in 2005 tends to be what people remember when the issue of skipping voluntary workouts comes up, the team has been down this road many other times, with varied results. From 2003 to '05, at least one Eagle skipped these practices every year.

Corner Bobby Taylor and running back Duce Staley in '03. Defensive tackle Corey Simon in '04. T.O., and Simon again, in '05 - which was the year Owens and running back Brian Westbrook skipped the first minicamp, the mandatory one. Westbrook then changed agents and showed up for the voluntary camp before missing the first 7 days of training camp because he was dissatisfied with his contract.

Of all those players, Westbrook is the only one who stayed with the team past the season of the missed time, though Staley played very productively for the Eagles in '03 before leaving for the Steelers the next spring as a free agent.

"I don't really think he's trying to 'make a statement,' '' Brown said. "If you guys have known Lito in the past, Lito has always been Lito - he's just a guy that does what he wants to do, period."

Dawkins was asked if he expects Sheppard to be his teammate this season.

"I hope everything works out for the best, whatever that best is," Dawkins said. "I've always said I hope everything works out for Lito in the end. If he's here, we're going to ball out. If he's not, I hope he's healthy and doing his thing somewhere else."

Quarterback Donovan McNabb said of Sheppard: "I look forward to seeing him out there picking passes off and giving the offense an opportunity to get back on the field."

As is his custom, Reid reiterated that he was "concentrating on the guys who are here" and is "not worried about the guys who aren't here."

"It's important that we have 99 percent of the football team here working," Reid said.

"It's his decision," Reid said, when asked about Sheppard. "I'll leave it at that."

Birdseed

Asked what

Lito Sheppard

was missing by not attending yesterday,

Sheldon Brown

said, "Wide receiver reps." There was a report last week that the Birds hoped to entice Lito into attending by finally granting his wish to also be used on offense . . . Fourth-round rookie safety

Quintin Demps

looked good returning kickoffs. Demps said he returned both kicks and punts at UTEP, and slightly prefers punts. "On punts, you need your dudes to block, but not as much as on kickoffs," he explained.

After finishing last in the league in takeaways last season, Eagles defenders have started swarming every loose ball in scrimmages, even dropped screens, picking them up and "returning" them. "I don't know who started that, but it's getting on my nerves," Brian Dawkins joked. More seriously, he said: "On defense, you're supposed to have a good time, especially when you're getting turnovers and scoring touchdowns." *