College Sports

Charlotte 49ers coach finally gets his man: the ‘special talent’ of kicker Jonathan Cruz

Jonathan Cruz was a lightly recruited kicker during his career at Cartersville (Ga.) High.

Cruz, however, did have one consistent and stubborn suitor: former Austin Peay coach Will Healy.

“I offered him [a scholarship] when he was 14 years old,” Healy said. “I knew how good he was. I watched him forever. I watched him develop strength in his leg and his accuracy. By the time he was a senior, he was as good a kicker as anybody in the country.”

Healy recruited Cruz so vigorously that he convinced him to attend the Governors’ spring game after Cruz’s sophomore season.

Regretfully for Healy, Austin Peay of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, didn’t get Cruz.

But Healy has Cruz now.

Cruz, hoping to play at college football’s top level in the Football Bowl Subdivision, would eventually sign with the Charlotte 49ers, for whom he had a breakout season as a freshman in 2018.

And after Brad Lambert — the coach who landed Cruz for Charlotte — was fired, who other than Healy was hired to take Lambert’s place.

“It’s crazy how fate works out,” said Max Thurmond, Healy’s special teams coordinator at Austin Peay and now at Charlotte. “We have been seeing him for a long time.”

One of the first things Healy did upon arriving at Charlotte was to make sure Cruz was happy where he is.

“As far as recruiting your own, when I got [to Charlotte], making sure Jonathan was still going to be here was as important as anything we did as a staff,” Healy said. “He’s been as good as advertised, for sure.”

Cruz was superb as a freshman, making 17-of-22 field-goal attempts and all 27 of his point-after kicks. His 56-yard field goal against Florida Atlantic was not only the second longest in the country last season, but it also provided Charlotte the game-winning points with 25 seconds remaining in a 27-24 victory. That 56-yarder and a 54-yarder he made against Appalachian State were the two longest field goals in Conference USA last season.

That landed him a spot this summer on Conference USA’s preseason all-conference team and the watch list for the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the country’s top kicker.

“[The kick against FAU] was a big boost,” Cruz said. “We went off with a win, and it was a real highlight of the year. Now I want to prove to myself that I wasn’t a one-time shot.”

Healy has infused the Charlotte program with a new energy, with little the same from Lambert’s six-season tenure. That includes how things are done with the special teams group, of which Cruz is the unquestioned leader now.

Charlotte’s kickers and punters, for instance, have been integrated into practice more.

“They’re in our tackling circuit, in our turnovers circuit, involved much more,” Thurmond said. “They’re actually involved in practice. Most places, they just kick and snap balls for 20 or 30 minutes and you’re done with it.

“This helps them with their confidence in their ability now because of the work they’re putting in that goes above and beyond their usual skills.”

Said Cruz: “It’s better than just sitting there and not being a part of it while other people are actually working. I don’t think I had to make a tackle last year. Now, whenever it comes to having a chance at making a tackle, I’ll know how to do it.”

Healy knows what having a kicker like Cruz can mean for a team.

“It means,” Healy said, “that when you cross midfield, you’re in field-goal range.”

The coach and the kicker he always has wanted are finally together.

“It’s kind of unique and weird at the same time,” Cruz said. “I didn’t commit to him there, but we’re here now.”

49ers notes

Sophomore receiver Rico Arnold had season-ending foot surgery Tuesday. He tried to practice on his injured linsfranc ligament on the first day of camp last Wednesday, but he had too much pain. Arnold, who had 22 receptions for 302 yards and a touchdown last season, will be redshirted and have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

Grad transfer Brett Kean and sophomore Chris Reynolds split time at quarterback with the first-team offense in team drills during Tuesday’s practice. The 49ers started practicing in pads Monday.

A few scuffles broke out at the end of practice. Healy told the team afterward that “chippiness” is OK, but getting in dumb fights isn’t.

Asked after practice where the line is on that, Healy said, “We crossed it. You don’t want to get anybody hurt. You live together, you eat together, you compete against each other. It should mean enough to you that it gets chippy. But fighting is crossing the line.”

David Scott: @davidscott14