Navy football coach Paul Johnson calls senior fullback Kyle Eckel a "throwback." Whenever Eckel runs the football, the brigade of midshipmen in the stands of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium chants his name and yells, "Diesel!" Eckel's teammates jokingly refer to him as Rocky because of his South Philadelphia roots.
Whatever you call him, Eckel is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for the Navy football team's sudden turnaround, from 2-10 in 2002 to 8-5 and winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy last season.
Eckel, 5 feet 11 and 240 pounds, ran 236 times for 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, becoming only the seventh player in Naval Academy history to run for 1,000 yards in a season. If he duplicates that production this season, he would become the third Navy player to run for 3,000 yards in his career.
"He's different," Johnson said. "Without question, he's probably the most physical fullback we've ever had in this system. He's kind of a throwback. He's your old-school fullback."
Johnson would expect nothing less from a tough Philly kid. Eckel grew up in a rowhouse only a few blocks from what was once Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. His favorite food is Philly cheesesteaks. His favorite pro sports teams are the Eagles, 76ers, Flyers and Phillies. His favorite movies are "Rocky," and, surprisingly, all of its sequels.
In last year's Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Eckel ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns in the Midshipmen's 34-6 victory over the Cadets.
"He's tough as nails," Johnson said. "He's got good speed but not great speed, he'll run you over, and he's more than willing to block."
In Johnson's triple-option spread offense, Eckel figures to run the ball nearly one-third of the time. The quarterback has four options on running plays -- keep the ball, hand off to Eckel, or pitch to slotbacks Eric Roberts or Frank Divis. Last season, quarterback Craig Candeto and Eckel combined to run 507 times for 2,361 yards and 26 touchdowns. Senior Aaron Polanco replaces Candeto this season.
Eckel said opponents will be more prepared for the triple option this season, after Navy used it in leading the nation in rushing last year with 323.2 yards per game.
"I think teams know our triple option now," Eckel said. "It's no secret. If you concentrate on one guy, we'll hurt you with the other two. If you concentrate on two guys, we'll hurt you with one. I don't think they're going to be surprised by a fullback dive anymore."
Eckel enters his senior season as healthy as he has been since his freshman year. He missed spring practice in each of the last two years, recovering from knee surgery in 2003 and shoulder surgery this past spring. When Eckel reported to preseason camp earlier this month at 245 pounds, Johnson was concerned about his weight.
"He's very heavy," Johnson said. "Kyle's a big guy. We'll see if it's a good weight."
Eckel said it's just more of him for opponents to try and bring down.