If anybody has the moxie to handle the pressure that comes with replacing seven-time Pro Bowler Brian Dawkins, it just might be Quintin Demps.

"I knew it was coming sooner or later. I didn't think it would be this soon," Demps said yesterday at the third annual youth football "junior combine" hosted by the Eagles at NovaCare. "I know I'm [capable of being] a starter in this league. I'm not looking at it like I'm following him. I'm looking at it like I'm starting my own thing. I'm ready to go. I'm excited."

Demps was a pleasant surprise last season as a fourth-round rookie safety and kick returner from the University of Texas-El Paso. He announced his presence right away, telling reporters on draft day that he was "a Super Bowl player, not a Pro Bowl player." In other words, we had a winner in town.

Demps' 1,314 kickoff yards in 2008 were the second-most in franchise history, and his 25.3-yard average was the Birds' best for a regular returner since Brian Mitchell's final season of 2002. Demps also excelled in special-teams coverage, finishing the year second on the team in production points.

Demps' role on the defense evolved as the season progressed. By the playoffs he was on the field quite a bit, often at the expense of veteran corner Lito Sheppard. Unfortunately for Demps, what many fans will remember is his meltdown in the NFC Championship Game; Demps got crossed up and fell on a flea-flicker, allowing Larry Fitzgerald to score easily. Then he took a 15-yard penalty for a cheap-shot hit on Kurt Warner.

But Demps becoming the public face of a very bad day for the Birds' defense didn't change management's mind about his potential. After Dawkins, offended by what he felt was a lack of respect, surprised the Eagles by signing with Denver at the start of free-agency, coach Andy Reid indicated Demps would get the first shot at replacing one of the franchise's all-time greats, and the leader of the defense.

Of course, the Eagles might draft a safety who figures into the mix - Alabama's Rashad Johnson is visiting the team today, according to the Profootballtalk.com Web site - but it's unlikely a rookie, completely new to Jim Johnson's complex scheme, will be expected to start right away.

Today, Demps and the 2008 rookies, who have been working out the past few weeks, will be joined at NovaCare by most of their veteran teammates for the start of the annual offseason conditioning program. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is not expected to be a regular participant; he has his own workout regimen in Arizona.

Dawkins, meanwhile, will be introducing himself to new teammates in Denver, after 13 years as a fan favorite in Philadelphia. Even though Demps played no role in Dawkins' departure, he probably shouldn't expect a lot of forgiveness if he makes any mistakes.

"I know it's coming, just like everybody knows it's coming. It is what it is. Whoever it was that was going to be behind him, they're going to compare 'em," Demps said. "I'm going to be Quintin Demps, and let him be Brian Dawkins . . . I didn't make it this far not having thick skin."

Demps didn't intercept a pass as a rookie but he picked 17 of them in college. He feels his strengths are, "my eyes and my instincts." Demps said his hardest challenge as a rookie was off the field, dealing with the length and complexity of an NFL season.

"The toughest thing was staying focused in meetings, because they were so long and the season was so long," he said. "They threw a lot of things at you."

Demps has had some time to think about the season-ending loss to the Cardinals. He said his biggest mistake was trying too hard.

"I felt like it was the game before the Super Bowl so I had to do something different, when really all I had to do was what I'd been doing all year," he said. "If I'd have stood up [on the flea-flicker] I'd have probably picked it. That kind of stuff happens."

Obviously, he regrets the hit on Warner.

"Me being young, I was really frustrated, " Demps said. "They weren't kicking me the ball on kick returns. I got burnt for a touchdown, we were losing. Everything was going bad for me. I just took it out on the closest person to me."

Demps said he hasn't spoken with Dawkins since the signing, but they have text-messaged. Demps said Dawkins' advice hasn't changed: "Take it 1 day at a time, keep your faith, stay strong."

Asked who leads the defense now, Demps said that will have to develop, but he expects, "Sheldon Brown, Asante Samuel, Stewart Bradley, Trent Cole, guys like that," to step forward in Dawkins' absence. *

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