Utah State linebacker Eric Munoz takes a gamble on himself, and hits the jackpot

Ghosted walk-on turns in team-leading performance against Wyoming in his first start: ‘In the most humble way, I was right,’

(Photo courtesy of Tyson Bybee, USU Athletics) | Utah State linebacker Eric Munoz (38) runs back one of his two interceptions against Wyoming on Nov. 16, 2019. Munoz, a walk-on making his first start and playing defense in just his second game this season, led USU with 13 tackles and two interceptions.

Logan • Kevin Meitzenheimer is regretting the horsecollar foul he was flagged for during Utah State’s win over Wyoming last weekend. As much as it bothers him that it cost his team 15 yards, it’s more upsetting that it cost the Aggies linebacker a share of the team high in tackles and, thus, heckles from teammate Eric Munoz.

See, sometime around halftime, Munoz approached Meitzenheimer, who then held the tackles lead, and threw down the gauntlet.

“He says, ‘You know I’m going to catch you in tackles, right?’ Like it’s a competition,” Meitzenheimer recalled. “And that’s exactly how it should be.”

Eric Munoz, right, celebrates with fellow Utah State linebacker and best friend Kevin Meitzenheimer during the Aggies' win over Wyoming on Nov. 16, 2019. Munoz, a walk-on making his first start and playing defense in just his second game this season, led USU with 13 tackles. Wade Denniston/USU Athletic Media Relations

To understand the audacity of the dare, it must be understood that Munoz was a walk-on making his first start after two seasons with the Aggies. Prior to Saturday, he had played in three games this season, but only a quarter of one — the end of the Nov. 9 game at Fresno State — on defense. His tackles total for the season was three. Meitzenheimer’s was 69.

Apparently, Munoz loves a challenge. On Saturday, he overcame more than a few.

Not only did the 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker compile a team-high 13 tackles — one more than Meitzenheimer and safety Troy Lefeged, Jr. — and collect the game-saving interception late in the fourth quarter as one of his pair for the game. He also he landed on solid ground after taking a leap of faith with his talent.

“I’ve really had to persevere and keep faith in God that I was going to get an opportunity here,” he said, wiping tears from his cheeks during an emotional post-game press conference Saturday.

Chasing a dream

Utah State is the third program Munoz has played for in his collegiate career. A product of Belvidere (Illinois) High, where he earned Northern Illinois all-conference honors, he started at Upper Iowa University, an NCAA Division II program in Fayette, Iowa. After a season there, including one breakout game where he recorded 12 of his 32 tackles for the year, he transferred to San Diego’s Mesa College.

The decision to surrender his scholarship to play for a junior college team on the other side of the country didn’t go over well with his father, Gerardo, Munoz said. But Munoz wanted more. He felt he could excel at the D-I level, and he couldn’t do that at UIU.

“We kind of butted heads for a good amount of time. Then he kind of rallied and he believed in me,” Munoz said. “When your parents are behind you and believe in you when you’re rolling the dice, it means a lot.”

He and the Olympians found success that season. Munoz collected California Community College Athletics Association all-conference honors and Mesa won the Southern California Bowl Championship. Scholarship offers came flowing in from NAIA, D-II and lower D-I programs, but Munoz kept his eye on his goals. He initially signed with New Mexico State before accepting an invitation to check out USU. The Aggies didn’t offer him a scholarship, meaning he would have to pay out-of-state tuition, but he said their history of giving walk-ons a chance and the team chemistry prompted him to change course.

Then, someone pushed the pause button on Munoz’s dreams.

Seizing his moment

Benched the majority of his junior year as a redshirt, he was buried this season behind younger, scholarship players. He saw some special teams action in preseason games against Wake Forest and Stony Brook, but little else. Beyond frustrated, he made a visit to Utah State coach Gary Andersen’s office a couple weeks back to ask the coach what more he could do.

“I didn’t really have an answer for him other than keep on fighting, keep on battling,” Andersen said. “Do what you’re doing.”

Munoz did just that, outworking everyone else in the weight room, according to Meitzenheimer. He finally got his shot at the end of a pivotal MWC game against Fresno State, one that came down to a game-winning field goal, and made the most of it. His three-tackle performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup — in the same position that had been filled by David Woodward, who is still the team’s leader in tackles despite missing the past two games with an undisclosed season-ending injury.

Good thing Munoz likes challenges.

“He made spectacular plays in that game, but when the opportunity presented itself, he took advantage,” Andersen said. “It just makes you smile and it does your heart good.”

Munoz said he was playing for a defensive line that had supported its team jokester throughout his trials. He especially was playing for Meitzenheimer, who, despite his first-start jitters and the magnitude of a must-win game against the Cowboys, made Munoz feel confident in his new role.

“He’s always believed in me since I got here. When I wasn’t getting much playing time and wasn’t given much of an opportunity, he was always cheering for me and telling me to keep my head up,” Munoz said. “Lining up next to him was probably some of the most fun I’ve had playing football yet.”

Munoz earned recognition as the MWC Co-Defensive Player of the Week and the College Sports Madness MWC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts. He also earned a place at the center of a team dogpile when his coaches honored him Monday with a scholarship.

Most importantly, though, he earned vindication.

“In the most humble way possible I was right. My family was right,” he said. “I believed in myself [and] had confidence in myself and my ability.”

The trick will be to replicate that performance throughout the rest of the season. With No. 20 Boise State coming to Logan on Saturday with the MWC Mountain Division championship on the line, that will certainly be a challenge.

No doubt, Munoz will be eager to meet it.


When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m.