When Navy's football season begins at M&T; Bank Stadium on Sept. 3 with the renewal of the long-dormant Maryland series, the Midshipmen's starting lineups on both major units will be barely recognizable.
But there is no doubt that the most conspicuous absence will be that of No. 32, Kyle Eckel.
How do you replace the fulcrum of coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, a battering fullback who churned out nearly 2,400 yards the last two seasons, lost yardage on only five of 471 carries and scored 25 career touchdowns rushing, fourth in academy history?
Almost as much as the quarterback, the fullback is the centerpiece of an attack that functioned so well in 2004 that the Mids won 10 games for the first time in nearly 100 years, finished ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in a quarter-century and helped Johnson become national Coach of the Year.
Eckel, a fan favorite among the brigade, which chanted his name every time he touched the ball, will be tough to replace. "Those are pretty big shoes to fill," said Matt Hall, the junior who is the leading candidate.
As preseason practice began yesterday in sweltering conditions, one aspirant, Ron Kimbrough, took himself out of the race by quitting the squad, and Hall and Adam Ballard figured to collectively fit their four feet into Eckel's two shoes.
Navy fullbacks coach Chris Culton said he is "really excited" about the work ethic of both Hall and Ballard. "Both got in nearly 80 percent and now we'll see what happens. It's going to be hard to replace Kyle, who was a real vocal leader, but we have to do it."
Hall, a junior, is the more experienced with 19 rushes for 63 yards last year and 29 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Ballard, a sophomore, has a size advantage.
"I feel confident, but there's a good competition going," said Hall. "Hey, Kyle abused people. He hurt people. But in this offense, everybody doesn't have to be the prototype NFL back. A lot has to do with how you stick to the fundamentals and do your job."
Hall, who weighs 216 pounds, uses quick feet to get his point across. He said the best thing he learned from Eckel was "how to handle the times when the coaches are getting to you."
Meanwhile, Ballard, who checks in at 240, but was a tailback in a spread offense at his Texas high school, still is adapting to the Johnson system.
"I think I made a few strides in the spring," said Ballard, who played primarily on special teams last season. "But I had been running too high, and I'm still learning the arithmetic of this offense."
Both players are excited to be opening with Maryland, although Ballard said, "It's not Texas-Texas A&M.;"
"Last year, we were just as excited to be opening with Duke," he added. "It's not just because it's Maryland, but it's because it's the first game. It doesn't matter people saying how many people we lost. This is a new year."
Johnson was generally pleased with yesterday's opening session in helmets and shorts and said some of the newcomers will help.
"I think we're more athletic," said the coach after practice was delayed for 20 minutes because of lightning strkes. "What that translates to, we'll see."
First practices and season openers for area Division I football teams.
First practice: Yesterday
First game: Sept. 3, vs. Maryland, M&T; Bank Stadium, 6 p.m.
First practice: Today, 3:30 p.m.
First game: Sept. 1, at Towson, 7 p.m.
First practice: Monday, 4 p.m.
First game: Sept. 3, vs. Navy, M&T; Bank Stadium, 6 p.m.
First practice: Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.
First game: Sept. 1, vs. Morgan State, 7 p.m.