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Tuesday November 30th

Ryan Switzer makes history in Belk Bowl championship

UNC defeated Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 28, 2013  at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Buy Photos UNC defeated Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 28, 2013 at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

CHARLOTTE — Two days before North Carolina’s 39-17 win against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, ESPN’s SportsCenter challenged freshman Ryan Switzer.

The program aired a compilation of its top-10 returns of 2013, but to Switzer, there was a glaring oversight.

“Sportscenter really man??..not one of my returns on top 10 returns for 2013? Ha please,” Switzer tweeted Thursday.

And on UNC’s (7-6) first drive of the second half, Switzer calmly fielded a 38-yard Cincinnati (9-4) punt, eluded two diving tackles, and cranked his jets into overdrive, slicing up the center of the field into the end zone for a career-long 86-yard touchdown return.

“I wasn’t going to fair catch it,” said Switzer, the Jerry Richardson Belk Bowl MVP said. “I wasn’t getting many opportunities, and you’ve gotta make every one of them count. When I caught it, they just stood there, so I was able to run.”

The play marked his fifth punt return touchdown of the season, tying an NCAA record and establishing an ACC record. The return also put Switzer at the top of UNC’s career punt return touchdown list, eclipsing Johnny Branch and Charlie Justice, who each had four.

“Switzer did a great job again,” coach Larry Fedora said. “Those 10 guys believe that whenever he touches the ball he can take it the distance.”

Earlier in the game, speedster and fellow true freshman T.J. Logan recorded a 78-yard kickoff return touchdown — his second of the season — and after leaving the end zone, Logan found Switzer to hand out a challenge of his own.

“When I returned mine, I told Switz he had to get one, and he said ‘I’m gonna get one,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” Logan said.

Switzer and Logan combined for 237 yards of offense Saturday, including 203 yards gained exclusively on returns. The duo also combined to score 12 of the 39 touchdowns recorded by underclassmen this season, but it took both of them a little bit to shake up the depth chart.

After suffering an injury in preseason camp, Logan didn’t take the field until UNC’s fifth game of the season at Virginia Tech. But once he stepped on the field, Logan commanded attention, scoring six touchdowns in nine games.

Switzer, listed at 5-foot-10, entered training camp buried behind his teammates on the depth chart and thrown into a new position, something that the West Virginia native used as fuel to earn his spot as the team’s top punt returner.

“I got mad at first about being recruited as a punt returner,” said Switzer, who played wide receiver at George Washington High School. “Thankfully the coaching staff trusted me enough to be out there.”

Midway through the season, though, Fedora was still begging his special teams to turn in a game-changing performance.

“I was beating myself up because this coaching staff trusted me enough to bring me here and be a playmaker,” Switzer said. “I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain.”

On Nov. 9 against Virginia, Switzer gave the coaching staff just what they had been begging for when he turned a nearly muffed punt into an 85-yard touchdown return. The next week, he added two more against Pittsburgh.

Since turning in standout performances nearly every game in the final stretch, Switzer earned the respect of his coaches and racked up both conference and national accolades.

But even all that attention wasn’t quite enough to satisfy the dynamo.

If Switzer entered the Belk Bowl wanting SportsCenter’s attention, he got it.

Thirty minutes after UNC completed a season-long comeback, SportsCenter sent out a tweet: “Ryan Switzer tied an FBS record with 5th punt return TD this year. He’s 3 shy of career record. And he’s a freshman.”

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