Current Date: Sat, 08 Mar 2014 15:51:18 -0500
Thirty seconds remained in a game knotted at 35 in Kenan Stadium when N.C. State lined up to punt on its 25-yard line. Giovani Bernard was back to return.
The rest was history.
The electrifying Tar Heel playmaker, who had 19 touchdowns in 2012, scored the biggest touchdown of his UNC career by breaking the team’s five-year losing streak against the Wolfpack.
This season, Bernard will not be returning punts for the Tar Heels — he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in April.
Now, coach Larry Fedora is faced with the daunting task of finding a return man to replace the All-ACC talent during training camp.
“We’ve got three guys that are working out there on punt returns right now,” Fedora said Aug. 1, the first day of training camp. “Just in the little bit I saw today, we’ll be able to find somebody out of that group.”
Among the candidates to replace Bernard is an equally undersized true freshman who has proven himself to be a playmaker in his own right.
“He’s telling me he’s 5-foot-9,” sophomore T.J. Thorpe said of Ryan Switzer. “I know good and well he’s not 5-foot-9.”
Switzer, who doesn’t yet have an assigned position, has broken onto the scene during camp and shown that he could be what Fedora is looking for in the return game.
“He’s got that will,” Fedora said. “He’s got that thing you’re looking for inside his chest.”
An ESPN four-star recruit and the No. 1-ranked player in West Virginia, Switzer was highly touted coming out of high school.
Now, as a Tar Heel, he’s looking to make an impact as quickly as possible. Along with fighting for a spot in the return game,
Switzer has impressed offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. Anderson said Switzer and the other true freshmen have performed at a high level, especially considering they’re new to UNC’s system.
“(The true freshmen) have made an immediate impact and had a really good camp,” Anderson said. “They’re filling some roles that we didn’t really have a year ago that we just manipulated with other people.”
Fedora said Switzer’s position as an A-back on offense is unique to UNC’s system. Switzer will have an opportunity to play both in the backfield and in the slot, while splitting playing time with sophomore Kendrick Singleton.
But in the return game, he still has to beat out Thorpe, who was a Johnny Rodgers Award finalist — given to the top return specialist — in 2011 before a broken foot forced him to miss all of the 2012 campaign.
Though Thorpe — now healthy — wants to return punts and kicks himself, he said the young speedster from West Virginia is more than capable of making a difference.
“I’m a big Switzer fan,” Thorpe said. “He has a chance to turn the return game around, whether I’m doing it or he’s doing it.”
This season, when a win is at stake, Bernard won’t be back to return the punt, but Switzer might be out there to take it to the house.
“(Switzer’s) got a chip on his shoulder being that small,” Thorpe said. “(He tries) to go out and prove everybody wrong, that size doesn’t matter. “He is electrifying.”