Cruz preparing to kick off sophomore season at Charlotte
A kicker’s best chance for glory comes in the form of a field goal, and former Cartersville specialist Jonathan Cruz made 17 of his 22 tries in his freshman season at Charlotte.
He wouldn’t mind attempting fewer field goals during his sophomore campaign. That is assuming that he’s booting several more extra points instead after nailing all 27 of his PATs in 2018.
Regardless of where he’s kicking the ball from and how many points the kick is worth, Cruz is among the best in the country at making sure it splits the uprights. Following his stellar freshman year, he earned second-team all-Conference USA honors and landed on the league’s all-freshman team.
Even more is expected out of the strong-legged right-footer in 2019. Cruz was tabbed as a preseason all-conference pick and even was named preseason special teams player of the year.
But it’s not just those in and around C-USA who have noticed Cruz’s talent. The Palm Beach County Sports Commission announced earlier this week that Cruz was among a group of players from across the nation placed on the watch list for the Lou Groza award, which honors the top kicker in the country following the season.
“It’s been a really great experience and an honor just to be able to come as a freshman out of high school, having the opportunity to be one of the best in the country,” Cruz said. “It’s really a big target on my back, but I don’t really look at the watch lists because it all could change. No matter what the outcome, it could all come to an end. But I’m grateful to be on the watch list, and hopefully, I’ll be a finalist at the end of the year.”
Cruz credited his line and holder for helping him put together such a successful freshman year. And while those players certainly deserve credit, so does Cruz, who was an all-state performer (as a kicker and punter) and two-time state champion with the Canes.
In his final game for Cartersville, Cruz drilled a 55-yard field goal to set the school record. He bettered that mark by one yard in the last game of the 49ers’ season.
His 56-yarder in the final minute broke a 24-all tie against Florida Atlantic. It tied the longest made field goal in FBS last season and matched a school record. The kick sent head coach Brad Lambert out with a win in his final game leading the program, and it sent Charlotte into the offseason on the highest possible note.
“It was a really good experience,” Cruz said. “It was a good way to end the season. We were looking to knock them out of their bowl game, and that happened. We wanted to win that game for coach Lambert. It was a really big game.”
The only downside for the 49ers was that the victory couldn’t secure them bowl eligibility, as the team finished the season at 5-7. The goal this year will be to get over the hump and reach a bowl game for the first time in program history.
Charlotte should have a chance to pick up a couple of nonconference wins in the first few weeks, but even the most diehard 49ers fans would be hard-pressed to suggest a 4-0 start is even somewhat likely. That’s because Charlotte’s fourth game comes on the road against defending national champion Clemson and Cruz’s former Cartersville classmate Trevor Lawrence.
“It’s going to be a fun moment to take in, playing one of my former teammates,” Cruz said. “He’s a great player, and we obviously saw what he did against Alabama last year. It’s going to be fun.”
Following the departure of Lambert, who had coached the program since its 2013 inception and through its transition to the FBS level, Charlotte hired Will Healy. An FCS national coach of the year winner, Healy had successfully engineered a stunning turnaround at Austin Peay.
It seems everybody inside and outside the 49ers program is excited to see what Healy can do in the talent-rich Charlotte area.
“Everybody has been working hard this offseason,” Cruz said. “We have big goals, we have a new coaching staff and everything just feels different. It’s a different culture there now.”
He added, “I can see that we have a lot more fans. Coach Healy has done a great job making sure we have a good fanbase around here. He does a good job of making sure things are going well for us. He’s changed a lot of things. I have seen a lot on social media that people are interested to come watch us, because of the new coaching staff and how we’ve been practicing. Coach has been having more open practices and allowing people to come watch us.”
Healy’s presence hasn’t just translated to increased fan enthusiasm. Cruz gets to watch a lot of the reps his teammates take, and he can already see a difference in the on-field product.
“I get to sit back and watch them practice sometimes,” Cruz said. “I can see that they’ve gotten a lot better.”
The biggest improvement seems to have come on the offensive side of the ball. That’s a good thing for the 49ers who struggled mightily to punch the ball into the end zone last year, as evidenced by Cruz attempting nearly as many field goals as PATs.
If the apparent offensive development carries over into the season, Cruz will be called upon more frequently — although a higher percentage of his kicks would likely be the “tack on” variety.
“Our defense was really, really great last year,” Cruz said. “I feel like coach Healy brought enough people in, a lot of freshmen and transfers came in, to help us on offense. We struggled a little bit on offense last year. … I think we’ll be very good on both sides of the ball this year.”
And with Cruz on their team, the 49ers shouldn’t have to worry too much about the all-important third phase of the game either.