Almost a year to the day after what will go down as pretty much a dream home debut, Tennessee Titans defensive back Dane Cruikshank still can’t believe it happened.
It’s good enough just to make the NFL as a fifth-round pick at a position that can take years to master. It’s nice enough just to get to play your first NFL home game in front of thousands of adoring fans — one of whom is your mother, watching her first professional game.
But to score a touchdown? On special teams? In your second NFL game? In front of Mom? And to be able to give her the ball after the game?
Who could ever believe that?
“To be honest, I never thought we’d even run it,” Cruikshank said, mere days before the first anniversary of his first touchdown.
On a 4th-and-7 early in the first quarter of a Sept. 16, 2018, matchup between the Titans and Houston Texans, Tennessee was forced to punt the ball at its own 34-yard line. Cruikshank, lined up as a “burner” near the sideline, wasn’t just wide open; there were no Texans within 12 yards of him, with all but one of Houston’s defenders charging toward punter Brett Kern.
The defender tasked with covering Cruikshank inexplicably crashed inside before realizing the ball had been snapped directly to up-man Kevin Byard, and Cruikshank, the speedy former Arizona Wildcats cornerback and safety, had flown down the field.
Byard uncorked a floater, and the ball gently dropped into Cruikshank’s arms. He sprinted down the field, eluded the punt returner and sprinted toward glory.
“It was something we practiced week by week, and I never knew when we’d get the look,” said Cruikshank, 24. “We got the look we wanted. We ran the play. And right when I got the call, I was like, ‘it’s about to get real.’ I just ran my route and I was open, and I saw the ball in the air. Once I caught it, I knew I’d score. I finally got to the end zone and I was so excited. It’s something I’ll cherish the rest of my life.”
If anything, it’s only made him hungrier for more.
Cruikshank carved out a niche last season with the Titans, realizing his best chance to stick on an NFL roster was to play special teams.
He hasn’t always been of this mind-set.
Cruikshank arrived at the UA in 2015 as a transfer from California’s Citrus College, looking to help fill a position of need. When he got to Tucson, Cruikshank realized that coach Rich Rodriguez and the defensive coaching staff had already begun to suss out starters.
Seeing that “they had their guys figured out,” Cruikshank didn’t even find himself in the two-deep rotation. While he was starting on special teams units, he was unsatisfied, feeling he’d be unable to make his mark in the Pac-12.
He asked Rodriguez to redshirt that year.
“I explained to Coach Rod that I think I can be a ballplayer at this U, a really good one, and I think it would be a waste of time if I was just doing special teams,” Cruikshank said. “He granted me the redshirt, and that’s what made me say whatever opportunity I have in the future, I’m going to take advantage of it. I don’t care if it’s one kickoff, I’m gonna give it my all.”
Cruikshank started 25 games in his final two college seasons, finishing with 135 tackles and five interceptions. The Titans selected him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.
Now he’s in the NFL, where there are no redshirt seasons. The 6-foot-1-inch, 209-pound Cruikshank has made progress as a defensive back, and he longs to get more time on the field.
“Anybody who knows me knows I’m a die-hard competitor,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game, whatever. I hate it. I came here wanting to compete. I’d be too hard on myself last year. I’d say ‘calm down, you’re going to have some growing pains.’ Everything wasn’t daisies and roses. There were ups and downs. But I came in every day and worked. I made a mistake, tried to correct it and tried not to make it the next day. I put the work in.”
And he’ll continue to do it. He’s chasing the high of that first home game, when he sailed down the right sideline and into Titans lore.
Tennessee (1-1) is back in the spotlight on Thursday, traveling to Jacksonville (0-2) in a game that could be an early pivot point in the Titans’ season. Cruikshank says he’ll be ready to help, however he can.
“That play makes me — and other people — realize that I can impact a game in other ways,” he said. “Whether that is special teams or defense, I feel like once you touch foot on the field, you have to make an impact. That’s my motto.
“Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants more playing time. But you have to take advantage of your opportunity. It just felt like I earned respect from people. I wouldn’t say it established me in the NFL. It made me feel like I had to work.
“But people forget — I think I had two tackles that day, too.”