Quintin Demps ran back a kickoff 28 yards in the fourth quarter of last Thursday's preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.

As modest an accomplishment as that might seem, it was enough to make Demps the front-runner for the Eagles' kick-return job, at least going into Friday's preseason game at New England. It helped Demps' cause that Lorenzo Booker, tabbed for that task going into the preseason, mishandled all three kicks he fielded on the wet, stormy night; suddenly it seemed more relevant that Booker has never really been a returner at any level, though he has said he practiced it a lot as Leon Washngton's backup at Florida State.

"We're going to try to get Quintin a majority of the reps" against the Patriots, special-teams coordinator Rory Segrest said. He said Demps and Booker probably will both end up returning kicks at some point this season.

"Just a lack of focus, for the most part," Booker said. "I'm never uncomfortable [catching passes] because I've done it before. I've never done that before, so I'm just a little more excited to make a play, because you want to prove to yourself, first, that you can do it . . . You forget the small stuff [when you get excited]. It was one of those games. I made kick return look like it was rocket science."

Demps, a kick and punt returner at Texas-El Paso, has been working as the backup in camp to both Booker and punt returner DeSean Jackson. It might not be outlandish to suggest that the Eagles really didn't want to bank on him as a returner until the fourth-round rookie showed he was a good enough safety to ensure he will be active on game days.

Demps, who set a UTEP record with 17 career interceptions, has shown that ability. In fact, when Brian Dawkins was asked this week who stood out among the young guys on defense, the six-time Pro Bowl safety didn't have to think long:

"I guess I might be a little biased because he's a safety, but I've liked what I've seen Demps do," Dawkins said. "I think he's a playmaker back there in the secondary. He's going to have to work on his eyes a little bit - he's in the backfield too much, but I think that's because he's always trying to make a play on the ball. I think he's a guy that has impressed me with his athleticism, also."

Dawkins then noted that the Birds are working Demps a little at corner, as well; they haven't had a capable safety who could also play corner since Rashard Cook, now an Eagles coaching intern, suffered a devastating knee injury in 2002. (Yeah, they later had Matt Ware. Remember, we said capable.)

"I think he's adjusted well," strong safety Quintin Mikell said, when asked about Demps. "He has the right mentality for it. He's not a prima donna, nothing like that. He comes in and he works hard."

Mikell, a past special-teams captain, left no doubt how he sees Demps' contribution there.

"He adds so much to your return game in terms of speed and ability," Mikell said. "We need him on the field."

Demps, 5-11, 206, said his philosophy of kickoff returning is "catch it and run. And trust your blocking."

Then he expanded on that. "Get it and go, that's what you've got to do. Punt return, more of a little hesitation to see [where the hole might be]. Kickoff return, you've got to catch it and get vertical."

At safety, Demps is used to being a playmaker - hence the interception total. He understands the importance of what Dawkins said about his eyes, understands that he can't be watching the quarterback at this level.

"You've got to find a thin line between your responsibility and looking at the quarterback so long," he said. "Being young, you try to make a play so much. That's all you try to do is make a play. For me, coming from college, that's all I did, was stare into the backfield and make plays [by anticipating throws]. You can't do that in this league, man, it's totally impossible. It's too fast. The speed is too much, and you've got to be technique-sound."

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said yesterday that Demps' tendency to look at the quarterback is typical in a rookie.

"It's the hardest thing for a young defensive back to come into the league, with all the little techniques," Johnson said. "Quintin's going to be a good football player. He's got some habits, and we're correcting that . . . one of [the corrections] is to make sure he concentrates on the receivers . . . He's in a learning process, too. It's going to take him a little while, but I'm very happy with Quintin."

Demps was able to get his eyes and his feet into the backfield late in the Carolina game, blitzing and deflecting a Matt Moore pass to linebacker Justin Roland, who ran it back 74 yards for the clinching touchdown.

Demps said afterward that he had learned from Dawkins to get his hands up, if he couldn't get them around the quarterback before he threw.

Dawkins opined this week on why guys who show the ability to play both safety and corner, like Demps, are not all that common.

"You have to have an individual who, first of all, you trust to do both. And then, that individual has to be of a mind-set to not be afraid to do one or the other," Dawkins said. "Some people are afraid to get into contact, so that's why safety is out for them. And, some people are scared to get out there in corner . . . what we call 'the highway' out there, because of that speed.

"It takes an individual with athletic ability, absolutely. But you have to have a mental toughness about you, also, to be able to step out there and line up against receivers out there on that highway, and hold your own. I've always given every [corner] that I've played with . . . I give them a whole bunch of credit for lining up out there, and doing what they do . . . It's a grown man's job. At any given time, you can get taken deep, and you have to have a short memory to be able to line up again."

Demps said in Johnson's defense, corner "isn't harder than safety as far as the mental part. The physical part, probably." *