QUINTIN DEMPS knew the jump from high school to college would be big.

He knew the jump from college to the pros would be even greater.

But Demps also knew that, in the end, it was still just football, and, as far as he knew, that's what is being played in the National Football League.

"This has been a lot of fun," said Demps, the rookie safety out of Texas-El Paso who has made a name for himself as a kick returner and is now getting playing time in the secondary. "At each level, it got faster. From high school to college, it got faster, and from college to the pros, it really got faster.

"Still, at the end of the day, it's all just football. It gets to the point where everybody just knows where they are going, and there is no real thinking involved anymore. You just let your instincts take over."

Playing with instinct is a big thing for a guy doing kick returns, because you have little time to think things out when 11 other guys are rushing full-speed downfield to knock the stuffing out of you.

As Demps got accustomed to the speed of the NFL, the 5-11, 206-pounder started returning kicks at a pace that would be the best in Eagles history.

With two games remaining in the regular season, Demps has 1,274 yards in kick returns, which is only 73 yards short of the franchise single-season record of 1,347 yards set by Allen Rossum in 1999.

With an average of 26.0 yards on 49 returns, Demps ranks fourth in the NFC, behind Chicago's Danieal Manning (29.5), and Rossum, now with San Francisco, and Tampa Bay's Clifton Smith, who both average 27.3 yards per return.

On Nov. 23, Demps had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, which was the Eagles' first score on a kickoff return since Brian Mitchell had a 94-yard touchdown in 2001.

"It's just me trusting my blocking," Demps said of his steady progression into a top return man. "I'm not hesitating about stuff and hitting the holes."

Demps, who also has 16 special-team tackles, makes it sound so simple, and that's the entire thing.

"[Demps] has made so much progress since the beginning of the season," special-teams coordinator Rory Segrest said. "He has the speed. He definitely has the breakaway ability, and I think he'll continue to get better.

"I think the biggest thing has been his confidence in his ability to read the scheme, knowing exactly where he wants to take the return and heading up field. He's decisive in where he wants to go."

Considering the Eagles' lack of success in the kick-return game the last several seasons, Demps is a welcome find.

The Eagles rank fifth in the NFL in average starting position after kickoffs (30.0-yard line) and have started three drives across the 50-yard line.

If Demps' only contribution was starting field position, it would be a big boost to the

Eagles' cause, but in recent games, he has earned his way onto the field in the secondary.

In the Thanksgiving game against Arizona, Demps was credited with four tackles. Monday night, he recorded his first career sack by pulling down Cleveland quarterback Ken Dorsey.

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said Demps has earned his opportunities by learning the defensive schemes and producing in practice.

Johnson said he particularly likes to use Demps when teams employ multiple tight ends.

"[Demps] is still in the learning process," Johnson said, "but we use him in certain packages when teams put three tight ends on the field.

"It might take him another year to fully learn the defense, but at least we are getting him in there in certain situations. He's become more knowledgeable of the defense. He's got some athletic ability. He can run. He has some size and good hands."

Again, for Demps, it's been all about putting in the hard work to raise his play to the level of competition because the game itself is something he already knew.

"It's about a comfort level that you have to get to," Demps said. "The coaches also have to get comfortable with you by seeing what you are doing in practice.

"I've been doing well in practice, so I think they are starting to feel like they can trust me in games. I'm just taking it all in stride." *

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