Before the fourth and 1 on which the Chestatee High football team’s hopes hung last Friday, War Eagles coach Shaun Conley had a simple directive for running back Nick Lyles.
“He said, ‘Get the first down, and don’t let one man bring you down,’” Lyles said.
As he had done all night, the senior managed much more than what was asked of him.
Lyles ripped off a 20-yard gain in the final minute to seal Chestatee’s 41-37, comeback win at Habersham Central High. He produced 300 total yards and four rushing touchdowns on 27 touches while adding 10 pass breakups and forcing a turnover near the end zone that set up his game-winning fourth-down conversion.
For his efforts, Lyles is The Times’ Football Player of the Week.
“That kid is a special, special player,” Conley said. “His athleticism is almost unmatched. Habersham has some really good players, but Nick was right there with them. … He’s just a weapon, and any time he’s on the field that’s good for us.”
No wonder Lyles played almost the entire game for the War Eagles (4-2).
Conley said his senior workhorse played nearly 140 snaps and left the field only for punt returns and kickoffs. Lyles paced Chestatee’s offense with 23 carries for 281 yards — putting him at 2,278 rushing yards for his career — and made four solo tackles while assisting on five others.
“I was pretty tired,” Lyles said with a chuckle. “I felt like I was about to faint at the end of the game. But that goes back to what we do at practice, the 120s we run at the end of practice sometimes.”
Though Lyles is the War Eagles’ biggest offensive contributor with 1,110 total yards and 20 total touchdowns this year, coaches have asked him to play for long stretches of time on defense.
The senior received perhaps his toughest assignment of the season last Friday, sliding over to cornerback to cover Raiders star receiver Jim Barnett. Despite normally serving as safety or linebacker and having never played on the outside before, Lyles excelled in what he said was mostly single coverage against the athletic and speedy Barnett.
“We matched him up with their best receiver, and he pretty much shut him down all night,” Conley said. “The kid had a few catches, but nothing like the numbers he had been putting up. Nick frustrated the kid, and he dropped a couple of passes.”
On one of the few instances Lyles got beat in coverage, he more than made up for it.
With less than two minutes to play, Habersham Central was on the march and seemed poised to reclaim the lead after blowing a 30-14 halftime advantage. A Raiders receiver hauled in a reception near the 5-yard line, but Lyles forced a fumble near the goal line and pounced on it in the end zone for a touchback.
The senior said he wasn’t trying to strip the ball. In fact, Lyles claimed he thought the receiver actually scored the go-ahead touchdown before he knocked the ball loose.
“When the ball was thrown, the angle I had was that he was about to get a touchdown,” he said. “I grabbed him, swung him around, and I guess he just let go of the ball. … I got up and saw the ball and ran on it. I was like, ‘Oh man!’ So I got up and jumped it.”
But Chestatee still needed to convert a critical fourth and 1 to ice the game, and Conley, of course, turned to Lyles (8.8 yards per carry this season) one final time.
The senior said Habersham Central stacked the box in hopes of stuffing him, but he exploded behind his pulling guard for a big gain and even bigger victory. Lyles credited all five of his offensive lineman by name for his success on that play and throughout the game.
Indeed, Conley said his team’s second-half rally required “a total team effort.” But Lyles shined brightest among the War Eagles, who have already matched their win total from last season and have a bye week before beginning Region 7-4A play at West Hall High on Oct. 6.
“Of the 136 or so plays he was on the field, on play No. 134 he sealed the game,” Conley said of Lyles. “ … There’s no secrets about it. He’s what makes us go.”