A YEAR AGO at this time, Moise Fokou was a seventh-round face in the crowd just trying to make an NFL roster.
The Eagles linebacker dressed in a temporary stall in the middle of the locker room along with most of the other late-round picks and undrafted free-agent riffraff, and spent every waking moment desperately trying to get his arms around this strange new defense that was a thousand times harder than the one he played at the University of Maryland.
"It's like night and day between now and last year at this time,'' Fokou said yesterday after the first of eight voluntary full-squad OTAs at the NovaCare Complex. "Last year in the camps, I was just running around to run around. I was thinking of college defenses when I was on the field.
"But after playing a whole season and really studying the playbook day in and day out and being here the whole offseason, everything is starting to click. I'm even able to answer questions from the young guys. When you can teach something, even a little bit, it shows how much you know about it.''
While this year's rookies dress in the middle of the locker room, Fokou now has a regular stall along Linebacker Row. More importantly, he's no longer a face in the crowd. He will head into training camp next month as the starting strongside linebacker, though he is taking the attitude that he's going to have to work hard every day to keep the job.
"I'm running with the first team for now, that's the way I look at it,'' Fokou said. "You don't want to ever look too far down the line, especially in this game. I'm running with the first team for now, but it's always a competition. My goal is to make it to the first [regular-season] game as the SAM, and then we'll talk from there.''
That's a much better approach than the one safety Quintin Demps took last year. When he was named Brian Dawkins' replacement before the start of training camp, Demps was under the mistaken impression that the job came with a lifetime guarantee. Three weeks into camp, he found himself benched.
If Fokou ever loses his starting job, it won't be because he took anything for granted. He brought the same work-hard-and-stay-aggressive approach to the Eagles that he brought with him to Maryland as a walk-on.
"I've always had to prove myself," he said. "Nothing's been given to me. My life story is hard work pays off. That's how I'm going to go until I'm done. When something isn't given to you, handed to you, if you want it badly enough, you're going to go out there and get it."
Fokou's rookie season turned into a real-life advertisement for the benefits of hard work and aggressive play. He got the coaches to notice him, made the team, became one of the Eagles' top special-teams performers, and ended up starting five games at SAM. Not bad for a seventh-round after-thought.
"It's hard to find SAM linebackers in college," general manager Howie Roseman said. "A lot of times, they are college defensive ends that you've got to move back, and you're projecting there, like we did with Chris [Gocong].
"But Moise was a SAM in college. He had some of the specifics you look for at that position. To say you're in the seventh round and you know for sure he's going to be a starter for you, no, no way you can say that, or you wouldn't have let him slip that far. But he did a helluva job last year for a rookie. And hopefully, he'll take another big step here this season."
Fokou got his first start in the Eagles' 20-16, Game 8 loss to the Cowboys when Gocong was sidelined with quad and hamstring injuries. He started again a week later in a 31-23 loss to the Chargers when Gocong moved to the middle after Akeem Jordan injured his knee. He had nine tackles in the San Diego game and eventually replaced Gocong at SAM for the final three games of the season, including the team's 34-14 playoff loss to the Cowboys.
When the Eagles traded Gocong, along with cornerback Sheldon Brown, to Cleveland in early April, it was an indication of the faith both Roseman and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott have in Fokou.
"When I came in and played at midseason, a lot of people wanted to see where my head was at," Fokou said. "Was I going to come in and be as physical? Was I going to play like a rookie or like a vet?
"After the first series on defense, I realized this is football. I got real comfortable and had a blast. I know we lost. But I felt I stepped my game up and did what they needed me to do. I just love to hit people. This is football. You've got to love to hit people. Being physical is just part of my game. I might get burned a couple of times, but I'm not going to change the way I play."
Fokou, whose 20 special-teams tackles tied for the team lead last season, was flagged for six penalties. But five of them came in the first nine games. The only flag he drew in the Eagles' final eight games was a roughing-the-passer penalty against the Cowboys in the regular-season finale.
"I was a rookie," he explained. "There's a lot to take in your first year. You're adjusting to the game, the speed, the lifestyle, the whole environment.
"My game is aggression. I'm an aggressive player. I got burned on some penalties. But you live and learn. I slowed [the penalties] down toward the end of the season, but tried to keep playing physical."
Fokou isn't one of the league's bigger strongside linebackers. At 6-1 and 240 pounds, which is about 6 pounds heavier than he played at last year and 15 pounds heavier than his playing weight at Maryland, he is an inch shorter and about 25 pounds lighter than Gocong.
But Fokou said it's not about the size of the SAM in the fight, it's about the size of the fight in the SAM.
"The weight factor really isn't an issue with me," he said. "Whatever weight I'm at, that'll be fine. Your weight doesn't show how much power you have or how strong you are. When people talk about the weight thing, I don't really see what the big issue is.
"As long as you're strong and you're sturdy and can hold your own at the point [of attack], and are able to send the running back back to the middle linebacker, it doesn't matter what weight you're at."
Or where you were drafted.