When linebacker Chris Muñoz saw the San Jose City College offensive right tackle stand up out of his three-point stance during a home football game on September 28, he knew.

“They were going to throw a screen,” the Blue Devil sophomore said.

The Foothill tackle had basically just exposed that he was about to pass block. Muñoz read it, shoved him away and jumped past the running back, who had come into the defensive backfield for a short dump pass.

When the quarterback pulled back to throw, Muñoz pounced.

Twenty yards later, the Pacheco High School graduate had scored his first ever Pick 6. (Check him out at the 1:06 mark). That’s a touchdown on an interception return, a.k.a the holy grail of every linebacker on the planet.

“Honestly when the ball came to me, I was so shocked,” Muñoz said, laughing about how the big play in a 27-0 shutout came about.

“I was like, ‘This shouldn’t be happening.’ It took me back to playing safety and I just started running.”

The read, the reaction and the running explain why Muñoz excelled during the 2019 California Community College Athletics Association season. It also explains why he will have an academic and football future when he earns an associate’s degree in social and behavioral science in June 2020.

His defensive touchdown was the marquee play for the game and for a young man who transformed himself from a rarely used freshman safety at Modesto Junior College in 2018, to the state’s sack master at Merced College in 2019.

Muñoz led all CCCAA players with 15 sacks. He sacked the QB four times in a 21-2 win over Contra Costa. His 72 solo tackles and 36 tackles for loss also led the CCCAA.

Muñoz’s CCCAA football story actually started with a wasted year at Modesto JC in 2018. He didn’t start, play linebacker or weigh more than 200 pounds as a Viking.

A change of location, position and body type gave him a second life anchoring the Blue Devil defense.

“I think it was the perfect place for me,” Muñoz said of Merced College. “Right from the start, I felt part of a family. . . . They built me up into the player I am.”

Ironically, Muñoz never considered coming to Merced College out of Pacheco in Los Banos. He looked at Modesto JC and several NAIA schools. He chose MJC and didn’t get much playing time on a stacked roster. He figured maybe his football days were over.

But Muñoz ran into MC head coach Bob Casey at a Blue Devil basketball game in January before the spring semester began. They got to talking. Casey heard Muñoz wasn’t playing football and told him to visit his office the following Monday.

“Coach Casey was completely honest and completely real with me,” Muñoz said. “Sometimes coaches tell you what you want to hear, but he never did.”

The 6-foot, 220-pounder said he navigated the transfer so well because Blue Devil defensive coordinator Justin Pinasco simplified the scheme to give him free rein to get to the quarterback.

Blue Devil football had lower numbers than usual in 2019 so Pinasco was searching for a player to emerge. He saw Muñoz’s value during the offseason. Muñoz worked hard and had both size and a good feel for the game. It then became Pinasco’s job to plug Muñoz in where he could do a lot of damage.

Muñoz helped by adding 20 pounds of muscle in the eight months before the opener. Pinasco then told Muñoz, a high school free safety, that his future was at middle linebacker.

“I was like, ‘What?!? You’re crazy,’” Muñoz said of the position change. “Now, it’s the greatest thing ever. I love playing it. Playing safety, it’s too, kind of, safe. At linebacker, you’re in the box every play. You’re in the middle of it. You get in on the contact and the physicality of it.”

Pinasco said he had very little to go on trying to understand Muñoz’s potential before the hitting went live in late August. It didn’t take him long to figure it out. He figured it out during that first half against Football.

“We leaned on him early and he produced right away,” Pinasco said.

Muñoz also finished second in the state with 111 tackles and averaged 11.1 per game.

“Thank God he stayed healthy,” said Pinasco, now in his 25th year working with Casey. “I’m also a little bit of a hard coach to play for, but he handled that so well. . . . Unfortunately we don’t get him back.”

Muñoz’s future with a four-year school hinges on those coaches think of his size, speed, and tackling prowess after just one season playing linebacker. Pinasco says it also may take a bit of time for schools to find him since his standout season happened at a different school.

“He may not be on the radar just yet,” Pinasco said, “but he’ll definitely get attention.”

Muñoz doesn’t know yet where he will continue his gridiron career. He does know what he wants when he gets there—a football family.

“That’s the mentality that brought me to Merced College,” he said. “That’s what I liked about it. . . . I just want to find a new place I can call home.”