UNC's Ryan Switzer relieved to end touchdown return drought

North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer breaks away from the Illini for an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer breaks away from the Illini for an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Ryan Switzer made it look so easy during the final five games of his freshman season when he made a habit and a routine of returning punts for touchdowns. He did it so often it seemed like it might go on that way throughout his North Carolina career.

Instead, though, it wasn't that easy. Switzer, the Tar Heels’ junior receiver, went through the entire 2014 season without a punt return for a touchdown. At times it looked like he was desperate to break one. He looked for openings that didn't exist, tried to create plays that weren't there.

His frustration built. And then evaporated Saturday in the time it took him to run across the field at Kenan Stadium, run around blocks and past opposing players and into the end zone after an 85-yard return for a touchdown that was his first since the final game of the 2013 season.

“A big relief,” a beaming Switzer said afterward. “I got a big hug from coach (Larry) Fedora. I could sense that he was relieved, as well, to finally get one. And to get a special teams game-changing play like that, because we haven't gotten any on kick return, either. So I think everybody that has a part in punt returns was relieved that we could still do this thing. So it's a good feeling.”

Switzer's 85-yard return came in the fourth quarter of the Tar Heels' 48-14 victory against the Illini. By then the outcome wasn't in doubt. Earlier, though, he nearly returned another punt for a touchdown, too, but was knocked out of bounds after 71 yards.

At the time, the 71-yard return was Switzer's longest since 2013. Switzer never doubted that he'd lost his ability to return punts, but his first long return against Illinois offered him real, tangible proo that he still had it, and that perhaps it was only a matter of time before one of his returns ended in the end zone.

“He has been frustrated,” Fedora said Saturday. “Today, though, he got opportunities to return balls. There was not a lot of hang time on those balls and those other 10 guys were doing a great job up front (blocking), so he had some opportunities today.”

In the moment punt returns look chaotic. When they work, though, the chaos is choreographed, the movement planned, and the returner moves with precision and confidence because he knows where his blockers will be and where he'll find open space.

Switzer knew that and more Saturday. He knew that Illinois was averaging more than 40 yards per punt, and he figured that at some point he'd have an opportunity to do what he hadn't in a long while.

“I could feel it,” Switzer said.

The 71-yard return bolstered his faith. And then came the longer one midway through the fourth quarter. Switzer finished the game with 186 yards in punt returns, a school record. The one he broke had stood since 1951.

Switzer entered last season speaking with confidence about how eventually he'd hold the NCAA record for punt returns for touchdowns. The 2014 season humbled him, but now, after Saturday, he has six touchdown returns and he's two from tying the national record.

After the 85-yard return Switzer found himself near the back of the end zone. He felt a sense of relief and exuberance. His desire to celebrate inspired him to jump backwards and he expected to land in his teammates' arms. There are still some things to work on, it turns out.

“They were supposed to catch me,” said Switzer, who fell the ground after he first touchdown return in more than a year. “I had five guys in the end zone, and none of them caught me. So I'm going to have to continue hearing about that. I don't even want to see it. But I'm sure I will.”