Navy fullback Matt Hall knew the comparisons were coming. He had watched his predecessor, Kyle Eckel, plow through defenses for nearly 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns in two years, and become one of a rare few Navy players to get a chance to play in the NFL.
"Everybody talked about Kyle because he was a legend at this school," Hall said. "It's up to other people to make comparisons. I'm not worried about that. I see this as an opportunity that I've waited a long time for. This preseason is my chance to show what I can do."
The 5-foot-10, 216-pound junior doesn't have the size of Eckel, a 5-11, 243-pounder who scored on a four-yard touchdown run for the New England Patriots in their victory over Cincinnati Friday. But Hall is quicker -- and a quick learner.
Last season Hall played on the second team, running the same plays as Eckel, which gave him a competitive edge when preseason practice opened this month. Hall expected his main competition to come from Adam Ballard, but the 6-1, 240-pound sophomore suffered a minor hamstring injury that left him unable to practice last week.
"The fullbacks knew that when Kyle left, it was like he shined a big spotlight on us," Ballard said. "It's not going to be easy for anyone who takes over for him."
So with only two freshmen -- Eric Kettani and Justin Guzman -- and sophomore Nic Jesse in the mix, Hall used last Saturday's scrimmage to establish himself as the likely starter when Navy opens its season against Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 3. He rushed for 50 yards on 15 carries and caught two passes for 37 yards.
"Hall is clearly the best fullback, especially with Ballard being out," Coach Paul Johnson said. "Eric Kettani has a chance to be a good player and so does Justin Guzman, but they are freshmen. He should be way ahead of them and he is. Matt has always run hard. He's a good runner. He's not real fast, but he's quick."
Hall flashed an ear-to-ear smile when told of Johnson's comments because he doesn't want to experience life on the second string again.
"My biggest priority during the preseason was to establish myself as a starter," said Hall, who rushed for 63 yards on 19 carries last season. "We still have a few weeks before our first game against Maryland, and I still have to get better, but I like the position I'm in."
Hall's rise to the top of the depth chart wasn't easy -- in fact, there was a time when his doctor questioned if he'd ever play football again.
In 1999, on a late summer afternoon on Florida's west coast, Hall was attending a weeklong overnight football camp with the Bishop Verot High School team when he planted his right leg to tackle a ballcarrier and ended up on his back writhing in pain. His right leg and ankle had been fractured when a teammate dove on his leg while assisting the tackle.
"The first doctor said if I had surgery, I'd be back in six weeks," he said, "so of course I took the surgery. Then things got worse."
A staph infection began to eat away at the bone, leaving Hall confined to his bed in Cape Coral, Fla., for eight weeks with an IV stuck in his arm. He wasn't getting better.
"After the second time they tried to cure it and the infection came back, the doctor said there was a chance they might have to amputate his leg from his knee down to stop it from spreading to the rest of his body," said Dave Hall, Matt's father. "At that point, as a father, what can you possibly say to your son? It was bad. We didn't know what was going to happen."
Matt remembers lying awake at night praying. He couldn't envision himself without sports, especially football, a game he had been playing since he was 6 years old.
"You're not done. You're not done," he remembers thinking to himself. "I could never bring myself to think about if I'd played my last game."
The medicine worked, but Hall spent nine weeks in a wheelchair, no longer an athlete that could zigzag his way around upperclassmen as a running back or throw to the ground as the solid tackler he was months earlier.
"At least I made it through," he said. "But it was like having to start over."
He spent countless hours in the weight room to rebuild himself. His road to recovery ended when he made the varsity baseball team that spring and returned to the football team's starting lineup as a junior. A year later, as a senior, he rushed for 1,154 yards and 14 touchdowns on 174 carries.
"I don't think about having to go through what I did that much anymore," he said, pointing to his ankle. "I think about what I have to do right now. The guys on last year's team set the bar pretty high, but looking around I think what we have is just as good as what we had last year. We just haven't had the chance to show people what we can do."