He was third on the depth chart in training camp, on the good days. He was the little kid from West Virginia, an 18-year-old true freshman whose prospects for the season remained uncertain.
Who could have imagined Ryan Switzer would end the season standing at midfield as his teammates paraded around a bowl trophy, the game’s most valuable player and owner of an NCAA record?
“I did,” Switzer said. “Yes, sir.”
As North Carolina’s top playmaker, tight end Eric Ebron, heads for the NFL draft as a possible top-10 pick, his would-be replacement is already stealing his thunder. What the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Switzer lacks in size he makes up in confidence, speed and guile.
Switzer’s fifth punt return touchdown of the season – tying an NCAA record he would now own alone if a sixth, against Virginia Tech, hadn’t been wiped out by a penalty – assured the Tar Heels of a Belk Bowl victory against Cincinnati, staking out a 26-point lead on the way to a 39-17 win Saturday.
His emergence, from deep on the depth chart to all-American, may be the most memorable aspect of a memorable season that saw the Tar Heels recover from a 1-5 start. The cheerfully cocky freshman has become a threat to score every time he touches the ball, to the point where he’s openly surprised teams still punt to him.
“I mean, yeah,” Switzer said. “I’m glad they do.”
His mere presence occasions a game of punting chess between coaching staffs. Cincinnati tried a rugby punt away from Switzer. North Carolina sent out T.J. Thorpe as a second deep man for the first time this season. The Bearcats tried to disguise their punt team by sending out their quarterback with it, only to call timeout when the Tar Heels didn’t bite.
“They were in a bind,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said afterward, from the perspective of a man happy to exploit it.
Switzer had an early long return called back by an illegal block, nothing new for the Tar Heels, before he finally got his shot in the third quarter. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, he was determined to run the kick back no matter what. It was a high, hanging punt, and the Cincinnati coverage surrounded him. Instead of a fair catch, Switzer made his slickest move before he even touched the ball.
“I kind of played it off,” Switzer said. “I was a little sluggish. I called ‘peter’ (stay away). When I caught it, no one was around me and I just hit the seam and it was set up perfectly.”
Eighty-six yards later, the Tar Heels had a 29-3 lead. Checkmate.
As trips to Charlotte go, Fedora would have no doubt preferred a berth in the ACC Championship Game and not the Belk Bowl, but otherwise this was exactly what he promised when he got to North Carolina: a frenetic offense with playmakers all over the field.
Switzer got his touchdown. T.J. Logan ran back a kickoff. The offense generated three more TDs. The defense added a safety. When required, the Tar Heels changed gears and stomped out a nine-minute drive. They finished the season with wins in six of their final seven games, their second bowl win since 2001 and a big star in the making in Switzer.
“Everyone counts the little guy out. Everyone counts the small guy out,” Switzer said. “I always believed in myself. I came to North Carolina because they had a coaching staff that believed in me.”
Fans screamed “Ryan!” as he ran off the field, pumping his fists as he exited. It was the end of a long season for the Tar Heels. For Switzer, this is only the beginning.