Noel Ruiz hopes road to NFL still runs through Georgia State

It almost was providential that Noel Ruiz ended up kicking for Georgia State.

The FCS All-American from little North Carolina A&T had been on vacation in March and stopped by Georgia State for an unofficial visit on the way home. It was the second day of spring practice, and the soon-to-be graduate transfer got a tour of the facilities as part of his whirlwind tour.

Days later, spring practice was canceled because of COVID-19, and Ruiz had some thinking to do. He had played in the annual Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, so he was familiar with the city. He had enjoyed an encouraging visit with Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott. Plus, Atlanta was close enough for his parents to attend the games from their home in Wilson, N.C., a town about 40 miles east of Raleigh.

But the decision wasn’t solidified until after he considered the success of Georgia State products Wil Lutz, the current kicker for the New Orleans Saints, and Brandon Wright, who is currently on the practice squad with the Los Angeles Rams. The path to professional football was at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium.

“Wil and Brandon played a part of me coming here,” Ruiz said. “The (NFL) scouts seem to know that Georgia State produces specialists, and I hope to be the next guy to follow that lead. … It made me realize I didn’t have to go to a big Power 5 school.”

Despite having interest from Nebraska, Boise State and Temple, Ruiz signed with the Panthers.

The result has been a good marriage for both parties. Ruiz has solidified the position, making 11 of 14 field-goal tries and 30 of 31 extra-point attempts en route to earning first-team All-Sun Belt honors. He leads the conference in scoring (7.9 points per game) and field-goal percentage. He ranks sixth among active FBS kickers with 313 points, fifth with 169 career extra points and 14th with 48 career field goals.

“He was a pleasant surprise,” Elliott said. “We knew he was good because he’d done so well. He’s been steadfast and has a very calming demeanor.”

Elliott’s aggressive nature makes him reluctant to settle for a field goal – a fact that Ruiz knew before he arrived.

“I did my own research and saw he didn’t try many attempts, but at the last school I had a similar situation,” Ruiz said. “When I got his trust, he knew he was going to get three points. If I keep going, I’ll get that confidence from coach Elliott. If we’d played 12 games, I probably would have got 20 attempts.”

He sees his current range at 55 yards. He made a 52-yarder at N.C. A&T in 2019. His longest attempt for Georgia State was a 53-yarder at Troy that had plenty of leg but was off target – “I mis-hit it,” he said. His longest field goal of the season went for 46 yards against Troy.

“In practice, 53 yards is the farthest I’ve gone out,” he said. “It depends on the weather, whether it’s windy or cold, how the ball is flying that day. By next year I hope to be comfortable from 50 yards on.”

Ruiz didn’t start kicking until middle school and got serious about it when he was a junior in high school, when the varsity kicker left.

“I always had a strong leg, I just didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I’d just kick it as hard as I could. I realized if I took time to practice, it would take me places. From that point I’ve been full-on kicking and have a chance to climb myself up.”

Ruiz has decided to return for another season, which will give the NFL scouts more opportunities to watch him in practice and give him more attempts during games. He wants to continue to strengthen his leg and improve his performances on kickoffs, where only eight of his 43 kicks went for touchbacks and three went out of bounds.

There’s a personal goal, too. He wants to win the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s best kicker.

“I’m blessed to get an extra year,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing my job and make it work to the best of my ability.”