Replacing a legend: ASU kicker Ruiz handling big expectations
TEMPE — True freshman Brandon Ruiz is replacing a legend.
Following Arizona State standout Zane Gonzalez — the NCAA leader in field goals made and a kicker for the Cleveland Browns — sounds like a daunting task because of pressure and inevitable comparisons. Ruiz, however, is up to the challenge.
He proved that Saturday, connecting on two big field goals, including one for 52 yards, that helped ASU upset No. 5 Washington, 13-7.
“I don’t want to go out there and disappoint them,” Ruiz said. “So I go out there and try my best, and my best is their expectation so it all works out.”
Ruiz has started out strong, hitting eight of 12 field goals and making all but one extra point. And 28 of his 35 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
It’s not surprising. The player from Gilbert was rated highly across the country and ranked the No. 2 kicker in the nation (No. 1 in Arizona) by Scout. He also earned a spot in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl with teammates Eno Benjamin and Kaelib Jarrell and was named a 2016 first-team All-America by MaxPreps.
After an accomplished high school career at Williams Field, Ruiz will have big expectations placed on him, ASU special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. What he also believes is Ruiz has a lot in common with Gonzalez.
“I think just leg strength and natural talent,” Slocum said. “Both of them have very fast legs and the ability to kick the ball all the way.”
Ruiz said he knows the school has high hopes for him and that he wants to reach those expectations.
“It’s up to him to determine that,” Slocum said. “We went out and recruited him and signed him for a reason. I think he’s a really good player. There’s a learning curve as a young guy. There are things that you don’t know that you don’t know and he’s in the process of learning those.”
With the level that Ruiz has reached, it’s almost inevitable that someone will have issues with his play. When the Sun Devils lost two of their first three games, fans were particularly testy about the team on social media.
Kickers especially have it bad. Former Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh received death threats after he missed the game-winning field goal in the 2015 Wild Card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. ASU coach Todd Graham has said the team has to “control the things we can control,” and for Ruiz, he tries his best to not deal with social media.
“I just read it and I just laugh a little bit,” he said. “…. I kind of just don’t put too much pressure on myself because everyone makes mistakes out there and no one is perfect so … that’s kind of how my mindset is.”
Though he said recently that “no one has really written anything to me so far,” he knows that day will come and he’s confident he’ll be able to ”not listen to it and just go about my day.”
Still, it’s a lot for a player who just graduated from high school to deal with, especially as he transitions to college. Ruiz said he tries his best to deal with this stress and the expectations.
“It’s very hard,” Ruiz said. “Somedays I’ll just be thinking like, ‘Dang, I got to do all this stuff and I have schoolwork on top of it.’ So I get very stressed but when I when get out here, I kind of calm down a little bit.
“Once you’re kicking, everything kind of goes away. Your mind’s clear. So it gets hard but just got to push through it and at the end of the day, I hope I’ll be on the stage winning the awards.”
Ruiz has huge goals for himself. He wants to earn All-America honors, first team freshman honors and consideration for the Lou Groza Award. He started off strong, earning Pac-12 special teams Player of the Week thanks to his performance against Oregon, when he hit two key field goals, one being the game-winner in an upset win over the 24th-ranked team in the nation.
He’s earned the confidence of Graham, who said that he already was focused on how ASU would stop Oregon’s next drive.
“That’s how confident I was that he was going to make it,” Graham said. “You can tell because he’s real relaxed now. At first I could tell it was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is a little different than what I’m used to.’ Then he had a couple little technique things coach Slocum helped him clean up.
“He’s just a talented young man and I’m really thankful he came to ASU because he’s a valuable asset. And I guess we probably have Zane to thank for that.”