Ever since his right front tooth was knocked out while playing dodgeball as an 8-year-old, Kyle Eckel has had the look of a smash-mouth fullback.
These days, the 5-foot-11, 231-pound Navy sophomore is doing more than just look the part. He's running over safeties and linebackers, and, in doing so, he's quickly becoming the focus of the Mids' revamped offense.
"I think I'm coming along all right," Eckel said. "I've still got a lot to learn, but the more of the offense I pick up, the more comfortable I'm going to be."
Eckel came into the season third on the depth chart, but a handful of injuries and his straight-ahead running style have helped him earn a starting position for the Mids' opener Aug. 31 against Southern Methodist.
And in Navy's option offense, there are few positions more important than fullback. When Mids first-year coach Paul Johnson ran the offense at Division I-AA Georgia Southern, fullback Adrian Peterson rushed for 9,145 yards and 111 touchdowns in four seasons
"Eckel has a lot of ability, and he's hard to tackle," Johnson said after Eckel ran for 134 yards on 13 carries in Navy's scrimmage Saturday. "Once he gets better vision when running inside, and that will come with experience, he's going to be a bear. The fullback is a big part of our offense. It always has been and always will be. He could get 20-25 carries per game."
If Eckel gets that many carries, it would be a tremendous spark for a team trying to earn its first win in more than a year. And while the player is quick to point out that senior fullbacks Bryce McDonald and Cee Harris will be back from injury soon, for now, he's the man.
"I'm real excited," he said. "We've watched film of Georgia Southern just to see how the offense works, and I saw what a great runner Adrian Peterson was. I hope to play like him. I know that would help the team a lot."
Thomas due to return
Safety Lenter Thomas, Navy's leading tackler last season, is expected to return to practice in the next few days, according to Johnson. Thomas has been out for more than a week with a sprained knee.
"We're hoping he can play," Johnson said. "If he doesn't practice before the game, he's not going to play."
In Thomas' absence, Navy has done all kinds of shifting to create some depth at its two safety positions. Junior David Bush has emerged as the Mids' top free safety after a good camp, and Eli Sanders, Joey Fay and Justin Smith will all be in the mix, depending on whether Thomas returns in time at the rover position.
Eager to start
After an hourlong intrasquad scrimmage tomorrow, Navy will take the weekend off before beginning to seriously prepare for SMU. Some players, however, would just as soon have the game this weekend.
As far as the Mids are concerned, the sooner they have a chance to prove they're not the same team that went 0-10 last season, the better.
"We're eager to earn people's respect," defensive tackle Josh Brindel said.
"I was joking with the guys earlier, saying my biological game clock is ticking," said junior linebacker Andy Sinitiere. "It's time to play ball."