BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Explain this to me: How does a franchise in the National Football League, one estimated to be worth upward of a billion bucks, not have access to an indoor practice facility with artificial turf during its training camp?

Once the thunder and lightning started above Lehigh University about 9 yesterday morning, the Eagles were forced to move their practice to a basketball gym. They were dry, but endangered enough practicing - and I use that term loosely - on the slick basketball courts that Donovan McNabb didn't even bother to participate.

For Chris Gocong, the Eagles' starting linebacker who has never played a snap of linebacker in that same National Football League, the move was problematic.

"I think I need all the reps I can before [my first] game," Gocong said. "To be like this [indoors], it kind of feels good because I'm not so hard on my legs, but I definitely need all the contact I can get."

During a contact drill last year at Lehigh, Gocong's rookie season ended before it ever really began. He was making a tackle with his head down and got hit by another teammate. An MRI exam revealed he had a stinger, and the Eagles placed Gocong, their third-round draft pick last year, on the injured reserved list Sept. 2.

Gocong spent all of the season studying the linebacker position. He was a defensive end at Division I-AA California State Polytechnic, where he registered 42 sacks in 41 games, but the Eagles drafted Gocong with the intention of moving him to linebacker.

So Gocong studied film every day - before practice, during practice, after practice. He attended all the meetings and picked the brains of his teammates.

After the Eagles discarded linebacker Dhani Jones during the off-season, they penciled in Gocong as their starter on the strong side, with Jeremiah Trotter in the middle and Takeo Spikes on the weak side. Gocong's ability to fend off rookie Stewart Bradley of Nebraska will be a running theme throughout the preseason.

No one inside the Eagles' organization questions Gocong's intelligence. He did, after all, go to one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country. But Gocong remains an unknown.

It's one thing to understand a position. It's another thing to actually play it, a fact Gocong does not dispute.

"The thing about football is you can't be thinking," he said. "You have to be confident in knowing what you know so you can just react. To me, that's what it is, and I need to get enough reps . . . that I am that confident before I play a game."

Andy Reid doesn't seem concerned about Gocong's ability to be effective. The 24-year-old will be surrounded by talented veterans on the Eagles' defense. But still . . .

"From what we've seen, he's made that transition well," Reid said yesterday. "The unknown is the camp, and then once he gets in the games, that he can transfer what he's doing now into those situations. He's a smart kid, [a] tough kid. He's got great change of direction. He has all the things that he needs to do it; it's just a matter of doing it. We'll see, but I feel comfortable with him in there as of today."

As of today. As for October, we could see Bradley, or, possibly, some combination of Trotter, Spikes and Omar Gaither, a starter for the final seven games last season - including two in the playoffs.

Regardless of who plays, the Eagles feel they have significantly upgraded their linebacking corps. They are deeper, faster, bigger than a year ago. Certainly, no more air guitar (Dhani Jones' trademark) is a good thing.

Matt McCoy got a chance to prove he was a starter in this league last season and couldn't do it. This year, it's Gocong's chance, and he admits the task is large.

"Going from I-AA to [the] NFL and changing from D-end to linebacker is tough," he said. "But that little year off I had was definitely an easy transition for me."

As to why the Eagles likely won't be changing training-camp sites any time soon, Reid said the positives of having the team at Lehigh outweigh the negatives. He'll endure the occasional indoor practice in exchange for the team-building experiences of living for two weeks in a dorm.

But know this: Gocong will be wishing for a lot of sunny days. His season could depend on it.

Contact staff writer Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.