Jonathan Cruz, all 5-foot-9, 175 pounds of him, is ready to bust open the theory that his prodigious kicking skills are the only way he can help the Charlotte 49ers win football games.
“If I could pick another position, it would be receiver,” Cruz says, a sly grin on his face. “It would be cool scoring touchdowns. I’ll mess around with (the receivers) at practice sometimes. When one of them drops a ball, I’ll tell them I would have caught that or I could have guarded them if I was playing (defensive back) or something.
“They just start laughing.”
Cruz is joking (maybe), but he’s nothing if not confident. And he’s been a revelation as a kicker for the 49ers this year. A true freshman, Cruz has made eight of nine field-goal attempts, including a 54-yarder against Appalachian State, second longest in program history and one of three (all 40-plus yards) he kicked in that game. He’s made six in a row for the 49ers (2-3, 1-1 Conference USA) heading into Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky (1-4, 0-1) at Richardson Stadium. It’s one short of a team record.
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His 88.9 percentage leads C-USA and the 54-yarder is the longest in the league this season.
“When we get in the red zone, our first priority is definitely go get in the end zone,” said 49ers quarterback Chris Reynolds, who also is Cruz’s holder. “But it’s a good feeling coming off the field having a kicker as reliable as Jonathan. We heard lots of good news about him last summer, but it was really good to see him at camp and see how good a guy he is.”
Cruz grew up in Cartersville, Ga., playing soccer. He never considered football until he started playing kickball in gym class in middle school, where he kept bombing balls over outfielders’ heads. That caught the attention of the school’s football coach.
“I was hitting home runs every single time; it was pretty fun,” Cruz said. “The football coach asked me to come out and try to kick. Ever since then, I’ve liked kicking.”
Cruz continued to play soccer in high school and he still loves the sport (he’s a big fan of Paris St.-Germain and star player Neymar). But he saw football as a better way to earn a college scholarship. He allowed his natural talent to carry him for a while, but it wasn’t until his junior year at Cartersville High that he really started to concentrate on his technique.
And it wasn’t until his senior season (he was a high school teammate of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, now starting at Clemson) that Cruz began to attract the attention of Football Bowl Subdivision schools, and although he got feelers from programs like Alabama and Oregon State, he didn’t receive any scholarship offers.
Charlotte was the first FBS program to offer him, and he took it.
“He’s not a big guy, but he always had a thump in his leg,” Cartersville coach Joey King said of Cruz, who kicked a 55-yarder in the state playoffs in 2017. “But maybe it was his small stature that hurt him with some of the big schools. “
King said he sometimes texts some of the recruiters from schools that passed on Cruz.
“Yeah, I send them his stat line (at Charlotte) and remind them that they couldn’t pull the trigger on him,” King said. “It’s funny not funny.”
And King doesn’t think what Cruz (who also punted in high school) says about playing another position is that outlandish.
“We ran a fake punt and he threw and completed the pass,” King said. “He did a really good job for us in the weight room.”
Cruz says he sometimes misses the constant action of soccer, and that the amount of time a kicker spends on the sideline of a football game can test his patience.
“It’s very different and it’s frustrating sometimes,” he said. “In soccer, you’re always on the field. Here I go kick a field goal and come off.
“But I’m enjoying this, I’m helping my team and that’s what’s most important.”