Somewhere along the line, the light came on for Ryan Switzer. The North Carolina freshman says the turning point was a touchdown catch against Boston College, the first of his career, but that was really the result of his development, not the cause.
Still, that game against Boston College, a 34-10 win for the Tar Heels, was a turning point in many ways. It was the first of five straight wins for North Carolina after a 1-5 start, but it also was the moment where several of the Tar Heels’ young players finally started figuring things out.
Not just Switzer, who has returned four punts for touchdowns in the past three games; but on the offensive line, where the Tar Heels have been starting two freshmen; and all over the defense; and at quarterback, where Marquise Williams’ role was growing even before Bryn Renner was lost for the season a week later at N.C. State.
Switzer’s emergence as perhaps the nation’s most dangerous punt returner has been the most dramatic development, but he’s hardly alone. He’s merely the most visible and productive element of the Tar Heels’ turnaround.
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“All the little things we give him to talk about probably overwhelmed him in the first part of the season and his decision-making process was poor,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Monday. “If it would have been where it was now, he’d probably have two or three more touchdowns under his belt right now. He knows that. There were some opportunities early in the year we should have taken advantage of.”
What Fedora said about Switzer applies equally well to the Tar Heels. There were some opportunities early in the year North Carolina failed to capitalize upon. The Tar Heels looked overwhelmed at times. And yet, here they are, enjoying considerable success.
“He’s right when he says we’re showing we’re more comfortable out there,” Switzer said. “A lot of guys are getting more reps, more touches. The more touches you get, you kind of just go back to what you’ve been doing your whole life with the ball in your hands.”
Switzer started slowly. He had a total of 11 touches on offense in North Carolina’s first five games before catching five passes in the loss to Miami, the Tar Heels’ last. Then he had the touchdown catch against Boston College and a touchdown pass against N.C. State before catching a pair of touchdown passes against Old Dominion last week.
His real contribution hasn’t been on offense, but special teams. He didn’t even start the season as the No. 1 punt returner, but moved into the job when T.J. Thorpe struggled. His touchdown return against Virginia was the first of four in the past three games.
“He’s getting too comfortable, I think,” Williams joked.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have rebounded from losing four of their first five games – including a home-field loss to East Carolina – to win five straight, clinch bowl eligibility and host Duke on Saturday with a chance to deny the Blue Devils a spot in the ACC Championship.
Switzer isn’t the reason for that improvement. He’s a part of it and a result of it, a young player finding his feet along with many others as the Tar Heels march along, each week another step in the right direction.