Ryan Switzer is going down the list now, remembering the punt returns for touchdowns that could have been, perhaps should have been, but weren’t – the ones that, had they counted, would have already made him the most prolific returner in college football history.
There was the touchdown return against Pittsburgh earlier this season, the one nullified by a penalty that “could have gone either way,” Switzer said. And one against Virginia Tech his freshman year that was wiped out, he acknowledged, because of “a pretty blatant block in the back.”
Yet, Switzer said, “it wasn’t really necessary. It was on the long snapper.”
He went on: “But the one against Miami my sophomore year – notice how I remember every single one of these – the one against Miami my sophomore year, that was just a missed call.”
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Switzer, a 5-10, 185-pound senior wide receiver, during the past three seasons and 10 games has returned seven punts for touchdowns – but he has been stuck on that number since the end of last season, when two of his punt returns ended in the end zone. And so he remains one touchdown return short of tying the NCAA career record.
Antonio Perkins, who played at Oklahoma, returned eight punts for touchdowns during his time there between 2001 and 2004. Wes Welker returned eight punts for touchdowns at Texas Tech between 2000 and 2003.
More than a decade has passed since Perkins and Welker played college football. And since then, no one has surpassed their record, or tied it – though Switzer has been in range now for years.
At the end of his freshman season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Switzer would set a new NCAA record for punt returns for touchdowns. Five of his returns during that season, in 2013, ended in the end zone – all of them in a five-game stretch at the end of the season.
We’ve had maybe, if I were a betting man, I think three or four really good opportunities, and we didn’t make it happen.
Since then, Switzer has returned but two punts for touchdowns, both last season. One came against Illinois. The other against Miami. And so, since then, he has been waiting, hoping for a chance for a return that will make a bit of college football history.
It has, at times, been a long, frustrating wait.
And yet, “Frustration’s not going to help you, though,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “It won’t help you.”
Opportunities might. Those have been scarce for Switzer this season, especially, while opposing teams have tried to limit his chances to take punts back to the other side of the field. In 10 games this season, Switzer has returned 13 punts.
At the same time last year, he’d returned 17 punts. After 10 games his sophomore year, he’d returned 29. This year, though, teams have done a variety of things to keep punts from landing in Switzer’s hands.
Punters have sent their offerings high in the air, with additional hang time. Sometimes they’ve punted where Switzer isn’t.
“Yeah, it’s just been a combination of things,” Switzer said. “We’ve had maybe, if I were a betting man, I think three or four really good opportunities, and we didn’t make it happen.”
The end is near. Switzer has two games – and maybe three, if the Tar Heels defeat N.C. State on Friday and if Virginia Tech loses against Virginia – to tie a record that once appeared would be his. His teammates, he said, have told him they want to help him tie the record, or break it.
There is a precedent for a memorable UNC punt return for a touchdown against N.C. State. Gio Bernard’s touchdown return in 2012 – which gave the Tar Heels a victory in the final seconds – is remembered as one of the great moments in the rivalry.
Switzer is seeking something similar, either in this game or the next, before time runs out.
“All it takes is one,” he said.
N.C. State at UNC
When: Noon, Friday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill