For the season, Mike Cruz has 10 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers aren't anywhere close to what Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham had last year, but based on his performance over the last three games, Cruz is becoming more of a factor each week. Cruz has six receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns over this span. Only Mike Shanahan (10) and Jon Baldwin (9) have more receptions in the same stretch.
Cruz humbly notices his improvement, and his increased contributions.
"It's not really about individual stats, it's about winning the game," Cruz said. "That's all that any of us really care about; going out and playing the hardest. Whoever catches the ball, whoever makes the running touchdowns, it doesn't matter. We're just all a team and family. We're just happy for each other. It definitely feels good, but we're not about individual stats."
The season started off rough for Pitt tight end Mike Cruz. He caught three passes for 21 yards in the opener at Utah, then vanished. Redshirt freshman Brock DeCicco started in his place against Syracuse--a move that Wannstedt later said was meant to send a message to a few players.
In that Utah game, Cruz caught a short four-yard pass, converting a first down that kept a Pitt drive alive--a field goal that tied the game at 24-24, at the end of regulation.
Cruz has struggled with penalties and turnovers at key points in games this season. He committed a false start against Florida International and later fumbled the ball away, after his only catch. That fumble came on Pitt's opening drive of the second half, with the Panthers leading 13-10. Cruz fumbled at the Florida International 15--contributing to some of the red zone woes the offense has had.
After the Florida International game, Cruz went without a catch in the Notre Dame game, then found himself out of the starting lineup at Syracuse. The move was made for Cruz and a few others, just as a wakeup call.
"We're going to put the best players on the field that give us the best chance to win," head coach Dave Wannstedt said, when asked after the Syracuse game. "That's the objective. Every week, we're only as good as our last game as a team. As a player, you're only as good as your last performance. We need to go out and prove ourselves every week."
If consistent play is what he wanted to see more of from Cruz, the sophomore tight end has proved it over the last three games. It starts with developing a rapport with quarterback Tino Sunseri and some help from some of the players around him.
"We're starting to build and form that chemistry on the field, and it feels great," Cruz said. "Coach (Wannstedt), his motto lately has been, ‘Players just have to come up and make plays.' Like I said earlier, it's not about the individual stats and individual goals, it's about the team and running your routes full speed, getting the correct depth, getting the correct splits. I want to thank line and give them credit on giving Tino time to convert the third downs, and Tino for his accuracy; just the little zip to get it in there."
At Syracuse--where his brother Jose Cruz is a tight end for the Orange, and wears the same number--Cruz had two receptions for 32 yards. He had a 26-yard reception in the second quarter that was key on Pitt's fourth scoring drive of the day. The impressive thing about the play was that Cruz caught the ball, then turned up field and gained significant yards after the catch--the first time we had seen that from him in his career.
Pitt returned home the following week to take on Rutgers. While red zone offense has been an enigma for Pitt this season, Sunseri connected with Cruz on two touchdowns--playaction passes--inside the 10. As a result, Cruz was named the John Mackey Tight End of the Week.
Against Louisville, Cruz had just two receptions, but they were both third down receptions. His first reception was a 14-yarder on a 3rd-and-8, that kept Pitt's final offensive series of the first half going. Cruz converted another third down on Pitt's first offensive series of the second half. Ray Graham scored his 21-yard touchdown two plays later.
Despite some early struggles as a starter, Cruz is starting to come up in pressure situations--such as third downs--something Pitt needs as a regular part of its offense, and in the red zone. Cruz says what has helped him to be able to step up on third down, is going against the scout team in practice during the week.
"I have to give credit to (the scout team)," Cruz said. "They come out and they make the game easy. They work their behinds off, and they go hard every snap. I'd just like to give credit to them."
Asked if there was any one player who he felt gives a good effort against the tight end, he had one in mind.
"Bernardo Nunez, he's a great player," Cruz said. "His motor's running at all times. It's running hard and fast. Not only him, the whole 11 guys in the blue shirts, just going out there and helping the team win, and showing us great looks, and giving us the opportunity to make the game easy."
Cruz still may have a ways to go to catch up with the names Byham and Dickerson, but based on the plays he's made in the last three games--and a better idea of what's expected from him when it comes to run-blocking, his improvement is symbolic of the way Pitt has improved over the last few games.
"We're just focused on the next game," Cruz said. "The next game is the most important game. That's what Coach Wannstedt is pounding into our heads. Coming off this great win (against Louisville), we got a bye. That just gives us extra time to game plan and get ready for Uconn, who obviously had a great game against West Virginia. Anybody who beats West Virginia must be a great team, well-prepared.