The redshirt sophomore was one of very few bright spots for UNC (0-2) in its 47-35 loss to No. 17 Louisville. He scored the first touchdown of his career on a 94-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, and his 199 kick-return yards broke North Carolina’s single-game record that had stood since 1994.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said of his touchdown. “It’s unbelievable for me just to know that guys put in effort all week, all training camp, just to get to that one point where one guy’s running down the field. It was like all of us scored at once.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tar Heels. Louisville (2-0) quarterback Lamar Jackson had just put UNC’s defense in a blender and walked into the end zone on a 43-yard quarterback keeper up the middle. That pushed the Cardinals’ lead to 27-14 with just under 11 minutes left in the third.
Ratliff-Williams caught the ensuing kickoff in stride around UNC’s 12-yard line. He had almost burst loose on his first return of the game, but a defender got off Brandon Fritts' block just in time to tackle him by the ankles.
That frustrated him. What didn't frustrate him was the fact that his first three kick returns had gone for 39, 18 and 24 yards, respectively. The gaps in Louisville’s coverage were there. And Ratliff-Williams saw them.
“Going into that kickoff return, I was keeping it in my head, ‘They’re going to give you one,’” he said. “Once I saw it for the fourth return, I just knew. Take it and go now.”
All the Cardinal defenders ran to the right. Ratliff-Williams did, too. But with a sharp cut to the left, he saw open space and turned on the jets. By the time he was at North Carolina’s 30-yard line, there was only one man to beat.
“I knew I was gone the second I got through there,” Ratliff-Williams said. “But at the same time, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Don’t get caught by the kicker. Don’t be that guy.’”
Louisville’s Blanton Creque made his best attempt to do that. He made a desperate dive for Ratliff-Williams’ legs around the 20-yard line, but he caught nothing but air.
The wide receiver darted in for a score and turned back to the teammates he knew were right behind him. Thomas Jackson and Carl Tucker were the first to latch onto him in celebration, but it quickly turned into a swarm.
“I was happy to see him get one,” quarterback Chazz Surratt said. “I know the whole team was.”
It was pure jubilation for Ratliff-Williams, who was the No. 1 quarterback in the state for North Carolina when he committed to UNC out of Butler High School in Charlotte. He appeared in all 13 games for the team last year, returning seven kicks for 138 yards and catching three passes for 21 yards.
The former quarterback racked up more kick-return yards in one game on Saturday than he did all of last year. And the same goes for receiving yards — he snagged three passes against Louisville for 41 yards.
“It’s all God, man,” he said, pausing for a few seconds before continuing. “Just blessings.”
If all of that wasn’t enough, Ratliff-Williams also downed a punt from Tom Sheldon at the one-yard line. As a gunner, he was supposed to be focused on the returner. But when he heard the crowd gasp and the Cardinal returner run past him, he knew the ball was still in the air.
“When I saw the ball, I just prayed it bounced up,” he said. “And that’s exactly what it did.”
Even though officials had to review the play and see if Ratliff-Williams really did grab Sheldon’s 66-yard beauty right on the one, the receiver said he knew he was out of the end zone as soon as he downed the ball.
In his postgame press conference, head coach Larry Fedora didn’t have much praise for his offense or his defense. The special teams, though, got a nod. Fedora said that group was the only one that played well enough to win a football game.
Everyone else heaped praise on their teammate, who they’ve nicknamed 'Ant.' Quarterback Brandon Harris called Ratliff-Williams “one of the most athletic people I've ever seen in my life.” Soon after the kick-return touchdown, Switzer tweeted “It’s about time!!!!!” and tagged Ratliff-Williams in it.
When asked what he thought of Switzer’s tweet, Ratliff-Williams beamed.
“I think he’s absolutely right,” he answered.