Was there anything more surprising, more entertaining last football season than the game-changing touchdown heroics of Ryan Switzer and DeVon Edwards? The two freshmen went from nowhere to the end zone in a big hurry.
A year ago at this time, only die-hard North Carolina fans and recruiting fanatics knew Switzer’s name. Even fewer had heard of Edwards, the Duke defensive back. By November, it was impossible to forget them.
Switzer’s run of five punt returns for touchdowns over North Carolina’s final five games helped turn the Tar Heels’ season around. Edwards’ three touchdown returns – one kickoff and two interceptions – almost single-handedly beat N.C. State, and he added another kickoff-return touchdown against North Carolina.
For Switzer and Edwards, it’s impossible to expect them to repeat last year’s unprecedented heroics. Too much has to go right for that to happen again. It’s possible, but unfair to presume. Their task this season is different: Having established themselves on special teams, it’s time to concentrate on their regular position.
“Some of the things that happened, at the time they happened, I don’t think you can train for that,” Edwards said. “They just kind of happened. But there was a lot of things I needed to work on, and I’ve seen myself get a lot better.”
Duke’s five-man defensive backfield leaves plenty of playing time for Edwards, who can play safety or cornerback. It’s a little tougher for Switzer, who has to find opportunities among big wide receivers such as Quinshad Davis, Bug Howard and Kendrick Singleton, all of whom are at least 4 inches taller than Switzer, listed at 5-foot-10.
It’s easy to forget that for all his return touchdowns, Switzer caught only 32 passes for three touchdowns last season – only two more touchdowns than he threw – although North Carolina certainly will look to get Switzer the ball where he can make plays this season, having seen what he can do in the open field.
“I want to come out of Carolina as one of the best to ever play at Carolina,” Switzer said. “Now if that means I have to return some punts then, OK, I’ll do that.”
While those two labor under new expectations, there are freshmen this fall who hope to have a similar impact. Two stand out, with the caveat that the real heirs to Switzer and Edwards probably have yet to make themselves known.
But of those who have, N.C. State’s Bo Hines and North Carolina’s Elijah Hood top the list, both true freshmen from Charlotte. Hines exploded for 132 yards on 10 catches in the spring game, and he was duly installed atop one of the three wide receiver positions on the N.C. State depth chart for Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern.
Hood faces more competition in the North Carolina backfield, but he’s a big, bruising runner who will provide a change of pace from incumbents T.J. Logan (who was considered by many to be a potential impact player last season as a freshman) and Romar Morris. Hood shares third billing on the depth chart with sophomore Khris Francis. That may not last long.
And then there’s the mystery freshman out there somewhere, maybe a defensive end ready to pile up a bunch of sacks or another returner with eyes for the end zone. We may not know who they are until November, but they’re lurking on a roster, ready to change an entire season with one play.
Someone’s going to do it again. Will it be Hines, Hood or someone whose name at this moment remains unknown? That’s the fun part. It was last year. It will be again this year.