Above photo of Jefferson Fritz by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- Jefferson Fritz still remembers his first game at Crusader Stadium. It was the season opener in 2017, a 23-7 win over Sul Ross State, and Fritz, a freshman defensive back, was asked to step up just days before the game.
“I remember I was in a rotation where I was one of three safeties,” Fritz said of that first game. “It was definitely an experience because the first-string hurt his ankle that week, so I got to start. I just went out there and played, but it was definitely different from high school.”
Fritz registered one solo tackle in his first collegiate game, and just as he elevated his performance level going from Kaufman High School to UMHB during his freshman year, the now-fifth-year senior has continued to step up as a leader for the Cru in the years since.
As he prepares for what could be his final game at Crusader Stadium on Saturday, due to the setup of the D-III playoff bracket, which could send the Cru on the road if they achieve victory, Fritz has accomplished much over the past five seasons. He was named the ASC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in his career last week, has been named a D3football.com All-America in each of the last three seasons, and is also one of UMHB’s four captains this season.
“They brought me along really fast,” Fritz said of his first year. “Coach [Larry] Harmon had ended up moving me up the first week of fall camp. [Watching the leaders on that year’s team] I saw that everybody’s role has an impact, no matter what position they play.”
From his spot at free safety, Fritz has done a little bit of everything for the Cru this season, recording 44 total tackles, 29 of them solo, along with seven pass breakups. But that is not the only place you will see the senior on the field. He also doubles as UMHB’s punter and one of the primary punt returners. Last week, he was named All-ASC as a punter, and has contributed in the return game with 20 punt returns for 297 yards and a touchdown.
“I obviously put a lot more time and effort into the game plan and everything for defense, but for punting and punt returns, I just try to have fun with it,” Fritz said of his multiple roles. “I want to do my best, but I just have fun with it. It’s fun to do extra stuff for the team, and help the team out.”
According to Fritz, punting is something that runs in the family. His father, Jacky, punted at New Mexico State, and taught him the basics of the art of punting throughout his early days on the field.
“I did punt in high school,” Fritz added. “My dad punted for New Mexico State and he taught me along the way how to punt.”
It was not until the 2018 season, however, that he was given the opportunity to try his hand in the punting game for the Cru. The coaching staff, aware that he had previous experience as a punter in high school, approached him about it, and he served as the backup to Holten Einkauf during that national championship season.
“In ‘19, they asked me, ‘Can you punt good?’,” Fritz recalls. “I said, ‘I can try it out.’ And then it just kind of went from there.”
Having Fritz as the starting punter is unique, considering it gives head coach Pete Fredenburg and the coaching staff an opportunity to run “read-type” punts, which allows Fritz to evaluate his options after the snap, and either punt it away, or attempt to catch the opponent off guard and go for the first down.
“The [fake punt] is a call, but he reads it, and he’ll either run it, kick it, or throw it,” Fredenburg said of the unique play they often run with Fritz at punter. “Obviously, he’s very talented and we want to make sure we utilize his abilities.”
That incredible skill set has not only been noticed within the UMHB program, and across the ASC, but nationally. On Tuesday, Fritz was named a semifinalist for the prestigious Gagliardi Trophy, which is essentially D-III football’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, and recognizes “excellence in athletics, academics and community service.” Notably, Fritz was the only defensive player to be named a semifinalist.
“It’s an honor to be considered one of the top players in the nation,” Fritz said of the nomination. “It’s a cool award, but, honestly the only thing I care about is winning the last game. It’s exciting, it really is, but it means nothing if we don’t win. That’s kind of my mentality.”
The team-first focus is part of Fritz’s DNA, but was certainly solidified by the veteran Crusaders that he learned from early in his collegiate career. He pursues nothing short of excellence, no matter the circumstances.
“In high school, I would do everything,” Fritz remembers. “I would do everybody’s job, I would make everybody right. I’d make the saving play or saving tackle. But getting here to UMHB and being under all these veterans taught me, I have to watch film, I have to come everyday to practice prepared, and really just be perfect.
“You have to try to be perfect. You’re not going to be, but if you strive for that perfection, then you’re going to be really good at what you’re doing.”
He saw first-hand what it takes to reach national-championship form during his very first season in Belton, playing on a team that reached the 2017 Stagg Bowl. Though the Cru lost 12-0 to Mount Union in that defensive battle, Fritz tallied two interceptions, and the experience left a lasting impression.
“It was a lot of fun, going to Virginia,” Fritz said of the national championship run. “Really cold, but definitely a great experience to have coming in your freshman year.”
In the midst of his fourth time in the playoffs, two of which have culminated in Stagg Bowl appearances, Fritz is a seasoned veteran when it comes to postseason play. Nothing is guaranteed once the playoffs begin, and as a team captain, that is a point Fritz has made clear.
“This isn’t the regular season anymore,” Fritz noted. “We don’t have a next week. You have to play one week at a time, no matter who the opponent is, because it’s the playoffs. Every team is going to play a little bit harder, a little bit smarter, a little bit faster, because they want to move onto the next round.
“It’s not the regular season where you can say, ‘That team can lose a game,’ or ‘We can lose a game and still get into the playoffs’. We’re in the playoffs now. It’s either make it or break it.”
Fritz and the Crusaders kick off on Saturday at Crusader Stadium in Belton at noon against Birmingham-Southern (10-1). The Panthers defeated Huntington 24-14 in the first round of the playoffs last week.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at email@example.com.