AJ Cruz started returning kickoffs when he played Pop Warner football in Lake Forest, Calif.
“[Kick/punt returns] have always been one of my favorite parts of the game,” Cruz said. “The biggest/longest plays in a game often come from special teams so it’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Today, as a junior cornerback for Brown, Cruz is one of the most feared players in the Ivy League because he can score touchdowns both as a defender and as a returner.
The two-time All-Ivy League cornerback leads the Bears (7-2, 4-2 Ivy) this season in interceptions (3) and kick return average (31.2). Even in last week’s loss to Dartmouth, Cruz kept the game close with an 83-yard return last week.
“I mean it was just a fun play. I was pretty pumped afterward, but it would have felt a whole lot better with a win,” Cruz said.
Even with the 21-16 loss against Dartmouth, Brown looks to be a formidable team. The Bears have limited opponent’s offenses to only 16.8 points per game and held opponents’ passing to 188.8 yards per game, the first and second best in the Ivy League, respectively. Brown also leads the league in interceptions with 12 total. AJ Cruz has been an integral part of their defense with 56 tackles, three interceptions, and a fumble recovery.
“He plays smart, he really works to do what the coaches ask him to do,” Columbia football head coach Norries Wilson said. “Cruz is a really good football player. He plays physical. He plays smart. He runs around and does a great job.”
The Bears’ success has not just been limited to their defense. Even when Browns’ highly-ranked defense or special teams does not excel, the offense, which puts up an average of 361.7 yards per game, has made up for them.
“The most memorable experience this season was when I made a mistake on a punt return against Holy Cross. I let a ball go, it probably landed on the 20, and it rolled all the way to the one-yard line,” Cruz said. “I’m sitting there praying that nothing bad comes from that mistake, and I watch [senior quarterback] Kyle Caballero come out and manufacture an amazing 99-yard drive that essentially won the game for us. I don’t think I will ever forget that.”
The Lions have struggled to produce on offense with only 297.1 yards per game, ranking last in the Ivy League this season. However, Lions’ junior quarterback Sean Brackett, who threw for 409 yards and four touchdowns last week, could be the key for the Lions to match up with the Bears.
“We are looking out for number 10. Sean Brackett is one heck of a player. The film speaks for itself. I think we have got to contain him and really just go 11 for 11 across the board, every single guy on our defense just do their job,” Cruz said. “Brackett is a guy who can get teams out of their gameplan. If we put trust in our D line and linebackers to do their job and our secondary can do ours, I think we will put our offense in a good position to score some points and walk away with a win.”
With the stage set for a final showdown of the 2011 season, the Lions will need to match and exceed Cruz and Brown’s intensity and discipline to be able to secure their first win of the 2011 season.
“We’ve got a one-game season ahead of us and we’ve got to take care of business. We just got to go all out once we hit that turf and play with intensity, passion, and the drive that the Brown Bears football program has,” Cruz said.