Two Virginia defenders were quickly approaching, and Switzer’s eyes drifted upfield to eye a potential escape route during the November game. He extended his gloved hands in order to guide the floating pigskin safely into his chest, but he had taken his eyes off the ball. It slipped right through. A muffed punt – the stuff nightmares are made of.
‘Everything was moving so fast’
When Switzer first got to Chapel Hill, his eyes were upfield. It wasn’t a nightmare, though. He was living out his dream of playing college football and the opportunities were endless. But he lost sight of the ball.
In his first six collegiate games, the kid who had enough high-school MVP trophies piled in his room to warrant a TLC show had scraped together just 174 all-purpose yards and zero touchdowns.
“The game wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. “It kind of hit me that I wasn’t playing how I play. I wasn’t making the big plays.”
To be fair, as it is for most college freshmen, Switzer’s first year was wrought with change. Though he had made his name in the recruiting circuit as a talented tailback, UNC coaches saw his forte elsewhere — at wide receiver. And adjusting to UNC’s pace was tiring.
“In a high-tempo, complex offense, you don’t really have time to think; you only have time to react,” said co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer .
Unfortunately, Switzer’s reaction was to think.
“I was a little bit nervous,” Switzer said. “I’d been wanting to play college football my whole life, and being out there, it was all surreal to me. Everything was moving so fast, especially mentally.”
All of that movement and change culminated in a Thursday night game in October against Miami. UNC was 1-4 , on the verge of an irrecuperable downward spiral, and Switzer was playing on the biggest stage of his career. But he couldn’t live up to his own expectations. The Tar Heels lost, and Switzer was close to losing hope.
“I had a pretty decent game against Miami, but that was it. I had a pretty decent game,” he said. “We were 1-5, things weren’t going well, and we needed a spark. I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
Switch on, Switz on
With the football on the ground and Cavalier defenders descending upon him during that game in November, the pressure had reached its peak, and the only options were to give up or to give everything. So Switzer flipped a switch. Three broken tackles and 60-odd yards later, he reached pay dirt. He had snatched success from the jaws of disaster.
In the first game after he decided to switch on, Switzer found the end zone for the first time, and UNC won a game for the first time in five weeks . Switzer went on to tally eight more touchdowns and rack up almost 700 all-purpose yards in the final seven games of the season . He went from averaging 10 yards per punt return to 25, and tied an NCAA single-season record with five returns for a touchdown . North Carolina won six of its last seven games.
“I wish I could have had what I had the last seven for the first six, but I didn’t,” Switzer said. “But people remember what you do the last half of the season. And they definitely remember all of that.”
How could they forget?
The freshman who couldn’t live up to his own expectations was quickly blowing past everybody else’s.
Suddenly, the award hoarder was back with a vengeance.
He became the first true freshman in North Carolina history to earn All-American honors and was named to almost any other All-Anything team he was eligible for .
He received the College Football Performance Award for the nation’s top punt returner, just a year after former second-round pick Giovani Bernard did .
He snagged the MVP trophy in the Tar Heels’ Belk Bowl victory and then he took two records away from the bronze hands of Charlie Justice, who stands watch on the outskirts of Kenan stadium.
The Ryan Switzer who stood in the shadows for six games was gone, replaced by the one who overshadowed any comparisons.
Switch on, Switz on.
This was the real Switzer. His hands are legendarily quick, his feet even faster – he ran the fastest shuttle on the team this year – and his vision impeccable. But that’s not what makes Switzer great or what helped him flip that switch, says quarterback and roommate Mitch Trubisky .
“One of his greatest assets is his desire to be great,” Trubisky said. “His hunger is off the charts. Nobody wants it more than him.”
And after the second half of last season, nobody saw more comparisons than Switzer — from ‘Gio 2.0’ to Wes Welker, with whom he shares the NCAA punt return record .
But now he faces the harshest comparison of them all — can 2014 Ryan Switzer live up to the precedent 2013 Ryan Switzer set? The ever-confident Switzer holds one absolute true, regardless of expectations.
“When the ball is in my hands, I can make a play,” he said. “I can make something out of nothing.”
And as far as comparisons go? Those are nothing.
“I like to think of myself as my own player,” he said. “And hopefully one day, people will say, ‘I want to be the next Ryan Switzer.’ Or, ‘I model my game after this guy.’ That’s what I’m working for.”