CHAPEL HILL — Tre Boston is a member of the punt return team at North Carolina, and he’s one of the guys who attempts to clear space for Ryan Switzer, the freshman returner. Ask Boston what Switzer’s best attribute is, and he’ll start talking about his eyes.
“I think vision,” Boston said. “I think we set up things the way it should be, but I think his vision also helps that, too.”
Switzer didn’t always see things so clearly. Months ago, he was a somewhat obscure receiver from West Virginia, where he had been an All-American in high school. Now, statistically, at least, Switzer, is the best punt returner in the nation.
He went from where he was to where he is because of his vision, both in the literal and figurative sense.
“He’s starting to grow up and starting to understand what college football is all about,” Larry Fedora, North Carolina’s second-year coach, said of Switzer. “He’s got confidence. That’s the main thing.”
Switzer never appears to lack for it. He did, though, at one time.
Switzer arrived as one of the most heralded members of the Tar Heels’ 2013 recruiting class. Expectations were high. Yet he went through what a lot of freshmen go through – the uncertainty. The confusion.
It took a while for Switzer to find his niche in Fedora’s spread offense. At the start of the preseason, Switzer found himself buried, too, on the depth chart at punt returner.
He worked his way up there, gradually, but at the start of the season was still behind T.J. Thorpe, a sophomore receiver who returned two punts in North Carolina’s season-opening defeat against South Carolina.
Switzer didn’t earn the full-time job at punt returner until the third game, at Georgia Tech. There were flashes of potential – like his 81-yard return for a touchdown at Virginia Tech, called back because of a penalty – but Switzer didn’t begin flourishing until the final month of the season.
The difference, Switzer said, were several conversations he shared with his parents and with Tavon Austin, a longtime friend who starred at West Virginia. Austin is now a receiver and returner with the St. Louis Rams, who selected him with the eighth pick in the NFL draft in April.
“I was able to talk to some people that mentored me throughout my playing days, and they just really told me to settle down and do what I’ve been doing since I started playing football,” Switzer said. “And when I did that, and when I stopped forcing things, then I really enjoyed myself and I just soaked in the moment of what I was doing.”
After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels turned their season around for several reasons. There was an easier schedule during the second half of the season, which helped. There was the improved play of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, who took over when Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending injury at N.C. State in early November.
Without Switzer’s production, though, UNC might not have reached bowl eligibility and a spot against Cincinnati in Saturday’s Belk Bowl.
He returned two punts for touchdowns during the Tar Heels’ 34-27 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. The second of those touchdown returns – a 61-yarder – came with less than five minutes to play, after UNC had surrendered a 21-point lead.
Switzer’s performance at Pitt came between two other games – victories against Virginia and Old Dominion – in which he also returned punts for touchdowns. He tied the NCAA record for consecutive games with a punt return, and his four punt returns for touchdowns tied the ACC single-season record.
Most promising, perhaps, is that Switzer accompanied his late-season surge with an increased understanding in Fedora’s offense. After a slow start, he finished the regular season third on the team in receptions, and he had his first 100-yard receiving game – which came with two receiving touchdowns – in the victory against Old Dominion on Nov. 23.
Switzer had never played a full season at receiver. What he accomplished there, and returning punts, has provided him a sense of optimism about what’s to come.
“I think I’m miles ahead of where I was at the beginning of the year,” Switzer said. “This is my first full year of organized football, playing wide receiver. So I had some bumps early in the year, but I think I progressed well as of late.”
Switzer has proven himself as a special teams player. He expects more of himself as a receiver, though, and said that with more time and more practice, he was confident he’d have a chance to develop into what he described as a “decent receiver.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter