Matt Carlyle returned two kickoffs 92 yards for touchdowns and a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the final four Orange Coast League games. He learned how to avoid contact on special teams three years ago as a freshman at Estancia High.
Carlyle earned a shot to move up to varsity as a ninth-grader after an injury to the starting quarterback. The Eagles wanted depth at the position.
Carlyle did not even play quarterback on the frosh-soph level. The team ran the Wing-T offense, so Carlyle said the varsity coaching staff then asked for the most athletic guy on the team.
They got Carlyle. The football pads and helmet probably weighed more than Carlyle back then.
Classmates called the 105-pound Carlyle "Mr. Varsity" because it is rare to see a freshman on varsity. Carlyle did not play much. He stood on the sideline during games. It was probably hard to spot him there because he was barely 5-foot-4.
Then came the little guy's shot to contribute.
"I was on kickoff one time," said Carlyle, whose duty was to contain the outside. "I went down to try and make the tackle. I think it was against Costa Mesa. They had one of the bigger guys [blocking and he] was right in front of me. I tried the best I could just to get around him. I tried to avoid contact as much as I could."
Carlyle survived and he is now dodging would-be tacklers as a senior return man.
He is five inches taller, 40 pounds heavier, and real fast. In a matter of seconds, Carlyle can cover an entire field and electrify a crowd.
Fans at Jim Scott Stadium last week rose to their feet during one of Carlyle's returns. He fielded a punt inside the Eagles' 20-yard line and then took it to the house, helping Estancia rout Costa Mesa, 35-6, in the Battle for the Bell.
Most teams try to boot the ball away from Carlyle whenever possible. Costa Mesa decided to punt the ball toward Carlyle late in the first half of the rivalry game and it paid the price.
Carlyle's first punt return for a touchdown this season gave Estancia a 21-0 lead. The game was practically over at halftime as the Eagles were on their way to clinching an outright league title for the first time in 21 years.
Closing out the regular season with a perfect 5-0 league record against their cross-town rivals never felt any sweeter for Carlyle. He was on the 2007 Estancia team, which shared the league crown with the Mustangs.
The latest title belonged just to the Eagles. Special teams played a major role in making sure it happened.
Beside Carlyle's punt return for a score, Estancia blocked a Costa Mesa punt in the first quarter. Senior Juan Mejia picked up the live ball and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.
"My hats off to the … special teams," Coach Mike Bargas said after winning the Battle for the Bell for the first time since his inaugural season at Estancia in 2007. "[Special teams coordinator] Mike Murphy has been awesome all year. We take pride in all three facets of the game.
"We didn't have to do anything else [on offense]. Special teams stepped up for us. We did what we needed to. I still have 90% of the [offensive] plays in my back pocket."
Bargas is saving those for Friday night at 7, when Estancia (6-4) plays host to Beckman (5-5) in a CIF Southern Section Southern Division first-round playoff game.
For the first time since the state-of-the-art Jim Scott Stadium opened in 2008, the Eagles open the postseason at home. Carlyle believes they are going to need the home-field advantage.
Beckman hammered Estancia, 31-0, at Tustin High on Oct. 8. The Eagles have turned things around since the nonleague setback, winning five straight games.
"Back then, it wasn't really that bad of a game. It was 10-0 in the third quarter," Carlyle said. "Our defense was on the field for like 100 plays. If our offense steps up and gets our defense off the field, and scores points, we'll be fine."
There are not many players at Estancia like Carlyle. Along with his duties on special teams, which include being the placeholder, he starts on offense and defense, playing wide receiver and safety.
The ball does not get thrown Carlyle's way much. The Eagles pound opponents with sophomore running back Robert Murtha.
"I wished we passed more. I'm not going to lie," Carlyle said, "but I like blocking as well, especially crack-backs."
Those kinds of blocks by teammates on special teams are usually the ones that have allowed Carlyle to break loose and race into the end zone.