THREE YEARS ago, when Jack Ikegwuonu imagined how his career would progress, he envisioned entering the NFL as a first- or second-round draft choice and quickly establishing himself as a physical cornerback with star potential, fierce in press coverage.

That isn't exactly how things have gone.

Ikegwuonu, now 23, is working out at NovaCare, eager for Eagles minicamps to begin, eager to begin proving that he can still be the player he seemed on the verge of becoming early in his college career at Wisconsin. The Eagles, who drafted Ikegwuonu in the fourth round last year despite ACL surgery and a pending court case that raised character questions for some teams, seem to have him penciled in as their "dime'' corner. At least, they have for now, though they haven't seen him on the field in a full-squad situation since they acquired him. The Birds traded Lito Sheppard to the Jets and have not moved to replace Sheppard in free agency, although with 12 picks in next month's draft, they certainly could still add a corner or two.

"This organization has done enough for me; I need to start giving back,'' Ikegwuonu said recently, a few days after getting the medical go-ahead to join offseason workouts with the team's other 2008 rookies. "I completely feel that they expect me to play, expect me to be ready to play. I try not to read into what the team is doing - they know what they're doing, they're going to make their decisions based directly on my development. How hard I work is probably going to affect what they do. All I can do is worry about myself, worry about my knee, worry about the impression I'm making on the coaching staff."

Ikegwuonu's problems started on Nov. 25, 2006, the year he made first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore. Ikegwuonu and his twin brother Bill, then a Northern Illinois football player, were arrested in DeKalb, Ill., and charged with felony residential burglary in what Jack has called a misunderstanding involving the use of a friend's video-game console. Just before the draft last year, it seemed a plea bargain would put the matter to rest with Jack avoiding jail time, but his brother refused to accept the plea. Now, Jack says, the matter is once again close to being resolved.

"I don't want to go into too much on that, but it's very, very close to being done,'' he said. "I can pretty much guarantee that it won't carry into the summer.''

Ikegwuonu didn't quite have the year he or Wisconsin hoped for in 2007, the year that would have made him a no-doubt first-rounder. There was speculation that the legal issue might have distracted him, but he was still looking at being drafted in the first few rounds when he passed up his final year of eligibility and turned pro. At 5-11, 197, with a gambling, physical style, Ikegwuonu was often compared to former Eagles corner Al Harris, who eventually made the Pro Bowl playing for the Packers in 2007.

Then Ikegwuonu tore his right ACL when he tripped over a blocking sled he was pulling as he prepared for the draft. The burglary charge and the injury combined to dramatically affect Ikegwuonu's draft stock.

Eagles coach Andy Reid said at the time that the team had done its homework on both matters, and that they felt Ikegwuonu was a good gamble where they took him.

"I think that [legal case] will work itself out as time goes on,'' Reid said after the draft. "I didn't only trust what he said; we obviously did a little investigation into it ourselves. We just have to let the court go through its sentencing phase and then we'll see."

"It's been tough,'' Ikegwuonu said. "It was very, very difficult mentally to get through that initial part, going through that injury process before the draft. I expected to be drafted high. But when you look at the totality of the situation, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. The Eagles have done so much for me . . . to draft me with so many question marks. I want to focus on the future, but the whole year was tough, to kind of watch and not be in there. I haven't played any ball since college. I'm kind of itching to get back on the field."

Even though he is a rookie in terms of playing time, Ikegwuonu said he badly wants to show his coaches that last season was not a waste.

"I feel like it wouldn't be fair to the coaches to say that I'm a rookie,'' he said. "Just going through those meetings, listening, breaking down film - you've got to learn something. If you're not learning something, you're not paying attention and you're not doing your job. I definitely learned a lot. I learned a lot about the defense, and about the complexity of the defense. I know what [defensive coordinator] Jim Johnson expects."

The biggest thing Ikegwuonu learned had nothing to do with coverages, though, he said.

"Just learning about how to be a professional - what it means to be in the National Football League . . . You have to completely change the way you act, from what you put into your mouth to how you spend every minute of the day, whether you're at the facility or not," Ikegwuonu said. "I think the biggest thing that separates people who play this game in the National Football League is what you do when you're not at the complex, when the coaches aren't watching. That's really what a true professional is judged on."

Though it wasn't exactly what he was talking about, that observation provides as good a jumping-off point as any to mention the picture that showed up on several Web sites last November, taken from Ikegwuonu's sister's Facebook page. It showed him sitting near a table that held what appeared to be a bong. His sister took down the photo and maintained she had Photoshopped it.

"If I could tell you more about that, I would,'' Ikegwuonu said. "It was really something that shook me up. It was something that was done with malicious intent behind it. It's a family issue that we've resolved . . . Being the person that I am, being brought up the way I was brought up, things like that are very embarrassing to me. I would love to move forward . . . That's not me, obviously; people who know me know those are things I don't associate with . . . My nose is clean. If I was concerned about something like that, I would not be here, I would not be doing this organization justice."

Ikegwuonu hopes that soon the questions will only be about his knee, and that he will be able to answer those by the time the team reports to Lehigh.

"My rehab is done,'' he said. "I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent full-go yet; we'll figure that out in minicamp. I'm going to just keep working hard and strengthening that knee. I fully expect to be 100 percent ready by training camp. Right now, it's just a question of whether I'll be 100 percent ready for minicamps.'' *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.