Freshman punt returner Switzer ready to turn in a big play

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A year ago, then-high school senior Ryan Switzer stood in the sea of Carolina blue-clad fans, cheering as Giovani Bernard dodged N.C. State defenders and found the end zone, defeating N.C. State for the first time in five years.

And on Saturday, Switzer will trot onto the field at Carter-Finley Stadium, waiting to receive the Wolfpack’s punts after securing the role of primary punt returner.

“It’s always a challenge being back there as a punt returner,” he said. I’m getting better at it every week. I’m glad the coaches have faith in me to put me back there over some older guys.”

At the beginning of the season the coaching staff put redshirt sophomore T.J. Thorpe on the field to return punts, but after a couple of miscues, including a fumble in the loss to South Carolina, Switzer quietly assumed Thorpe’s role.

There have been a few flashes of Switzer’s special teams potential — against Georgia Tech, an 82-yard punt return touchdown that was called back and a few weekends later, a long reception that again was voided.

He’s come close, but there’s still been a noticeable lack of big plays from the special teams.

“Right now, we haven’t had a game-changing special teams play,” Switzer said. “Could have, got called back. It’s time. We’re long overdue for one, so hopefully come Saturday, me or the two T.J.s can make something happen back there.”

Last year, Bernard’s game-winning touchdown as time nearly expired whipped the crowd in Kenan Stadium into a frenzy.

But this season, the Tar Heel special teams haven’t done much of anything to raise the decibel level in Chapel Hill.

“He was a big-play guy,” Fedora said of Bernard. “He could make big plays any time. Any time he touched the ball he could take it the distance. And we just haven’t had anybody show that this year.

“We haven’t had anybody get that spark or get that going. It’s not just because of that one person. Just overall we did a better job of blocking downfield, getting on the perimeter, all those things and we’re still working on trying to get better in those areas.”

In the Tar Heels’ seven games there haven’t been any punt or kick returns for a touchdown. The longest return was for 45 yards by Thorpe, a far cry from Bernard’s 74-yard punt return and Sean Tapley’s 93-yard kick return last season.

“Special teams, we still have not made a game changing plays,” Fedora said after Saturday’s win. “That is a disappointment but we’ve going to continue to work at it until we get that done.”

Bernard’s improbable return a year ago brought Kenan Stadium to a deafening roar. Switzer knows a similar play won’t have the same effect in Carter-Finley, but to the freshman, the silence would be just as sweet.

“There’s nothing better than making a home crowd silent,” he said. “Hopefully we’re not in the position, hopefully we take care of business early and we don’t have a close game down at the end, but if it comes to it, I’d be more than happy to step up and make a play.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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