FLOWERY BRANCH — Chad Hall hopes he made a big impression on the Falcons coaches — and that they have a long memory.
Hall was one of a handful of players participating in Atlanta’s three-day minicamp on a tryout basis, but his career options differ from other NFL hopefuls.
While some undrafted prospects land in the Arena Football League or seek jobs outside football, Hall could be bound for a war zone with classmates from the Air Force Academy. He must serve at least two years before he has a chance to be granted permission by the Air Force to pursue an NFL career, according to Capt. Tom Wenz, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
Hall wasn’t drafted and wasn’t even signed as a nondrafted free agent, so his final day with the team may have been the end of the minicamp on Monday.
"Either way, whether I make the team or not, I want to serve," Hall said. "I went to the Air Force wanting to serve my country, so that’s not a bad thing. I want to do it either way."
Hall’s credentials are impressive.
He was the only player in the nation last season to lead his team in rushing and receiving. He ranked third in the nation in all-purpose yards. He ran for 142 yards and had 272 all-purpose yards in a 41-24 win over Notre Dame and set an Air Force record with 275 yards rushing in a 30-10 win over Army.
But there’s this: The Falcons list Hall at only 5-foot-7 and 179 pounds. That is tiny, even for a team that has watched Warrick Dunn, who passed 10,000 career yards rushing last season, prove that a small running back can succeed in the league.
Hall couldn’t have picked a better setting to try to make good on his underdog NFL dream.
He was a three-sport star at Wesleyan School in Norcross, near Atlanta. In the Air Force media guide he listed the Falcons as his favorite NFL team and Dunn as his favorite player. Hall says he also was encouraged by the success of Wes Welker (5-9, 185). New England’s undersized receiver had 112 catches for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns while also returning punts last season.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, the former offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, says Hall wouldn’t be the first small back to find a role on an NFL team.
"He has unique skills," Calhoun said. "You think back to the New York Giants when they had Dave Meggett, who was a third-down guy and a returner."
Hall and the other players in camp on a tryout basis — including Georgia receiver A.J. Bryant and Georgia Tech safety Jamal Lewis — will learn this week whether they will be invited back.
Hall graduates on May 28. He then has 60 days of leave and could continue offseason work with the Falcons during that time before reporting back to the Air Force for training.
Hall quickly won support on the team.
"He’s great," said fullback Ovie Mughelli. "He’s a breath of fresh air. Guys like that tend to work a little bit harder, try to do a little bit more because they know that people are already counting them out."
There were only so many chances to make an impression in the minicamp.
Dunn was one of several big-name veterans cut after the 4-12 2007 season, but the Falcons signed Michael Turner to join Jerious Norwood as their primary running backs. Georgia’s Thomas Brown was a sixth-round draft pick and Jason Snelling returns as a backup.
"It was tough. With all the vets, you get limited reps," Hall said. "When you get in, you’ve got to shine. I went all out every time I got the chance."
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he remembered Hall from scouting the Air Force-Notre Dame last year, when he was Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator.
"I watched this guy almost single-handedly beat Notre Dame," Smith said. "He ran all over them. I was somewhat familiar with him. Our scouting department had grades on him and we thought it would be a great opportunity for him to come in and compete."
Hall’s best shot with the Falcons is as a return specialist.
"It’s one of the spots they haven’t filled yet, so I knew it would be a good opportunity to make the team," Hall said.
"Everyone is on a level playing field. It’s just what you do in practice. I couldn’t come in with a better opportunity. I just hope I get the chance to show them what I can do."