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Saturday October 23rd

Film review: Ryan Switzer becomes unstoppable force for UNC football

Ryan Switzer (3) makes a break through FSU's defensive line.
Buy Photos Ryan Switzer (3) makes a break through FSU's defensive line.

This is our fifth installment of Film Review, our weekly series where we break down a particular aspect of the weekend's action to help you better understand what's happening on the field. Here's where to find our previous pieces.

Something's happened to Ryan Switzer since Sept. 24. 

Before the game against Pittsburgh, Switzer was a solid wide receiver for the North Carolina football team. He was known firstly for his skills as a punt returner — remember, Switzer is one score away from tying the NCAA record for career punt return touchdowns. 

And, almost as an afterthought, he was a slot receiver who was quick and put up respectable numbers in North Carolina’s video game-like offense. In 2014, Switzer had 61 catches for 757 yards as a sophomore. In his junior season, he took a small step back and caught 55 passes for 697 yards. 

Compare that to his numbers from the 2016 season. Through five games, Switzer has caught 47 passes for 587 yards. That includes a 16-catch, 208-yard performance to beat Pittsburgh and his latest master class in pass catching — a 14-catch, 158-yard show in a win versus Florida State. 

Those are superhero numbers, especially in those last two games. So what’s happened to Switzer? And how has he turned into this unstoppable force for the Tar Heels?

Matchup nightmare

Switzer is a 5-foot-10, 185-pound receiver. He isn’t a matchup problem in the same way that, say, Bug Howard is for opposing corners. The 6-foot-5 Howard is so big that corners just can’t deal with all that size, especially in the red zone.

Switzer is a different problem. For many corners — and especially any linebacker or safety that is cursed with dealing with him one-on-one — the senior is just too quick.

Here’s a play from Saturday’s game. Switzer is lined up on the right side of the formation.

The defender tasked with guarding him is Seminole safety Trey Marshall. Marshall is a talented, experienced player for Florida State — he was a consensus four-star recruit in the Class of 2014 and played extensively in 2014 and 2015 for the Seminoles. 

But in this situation, Marshall is hopeless.

You can see here that midway through the play, right as Switzer is about to break toward the sideline, Marshall still hasn’t caught up.

When Switzer catches the ball, Marshall only has time to push him out of bounds. This was a critical third down play in the second quarter.

When you look at the tape of Switzer’s catches this season, you see a lot of frustrated defensive backs and linebackers who just can’t keep up with him. Switzer wins one-on-one matchups like the one against Marshall all day.

Max potential

In Switzer’s fourth year in Chapel Hill, Coach Larry Fedora and his staff have perfected how to utilize the receiver in the confines of the Tar Heel offense. 

Early on in Switzer’s career, especially in his first season at UNC, North Carolina was still very much figuring out how to use the West Virginia product. Switzer played running back in high school, and North Carolina tried to feed him the ball that way. 

But each year at North Carolina, Switzer’s rushes have gone down. He had 10 carries in 2013, eight in 2014, three last year and one so far this season. 

Instead, Fedora and his staff have drawn up a variety of screens and swing passes to match Switzer’s skill set in space.

Here’s an example against Florida State on Saturday.

From this formation, North Carolina can run the ball to the left side with Elijah Hood — a threat the Seminoles respect by putting seven defenders in the box to stop the run. The Tar Heels can also take a deep shot to Mack Hollins or Howard at the top of the screen, a threat Florida State counters by playing its corners several yards off the line of scrimmage. 

But that leaves space open for Switzer, and North Carolina knows exactly how to get him the ball in that space.

There’s just too much open field here for Switzer, and he thrives in space. The two linebackers — already slow getting to the boundary after biting on the fake handoff to Hood — won't win this battle against the speedy receiver.

It also helps on this play that quarterback Mitch Trubisky delivers it right in Switzer's hands, giving the receiver the easiest transition from catching the ball to running and gaining yardage. Put on the tape of Switzer’s catches from Florida State, and you can see Trubisky hits him in the chest time after time. 


The final key to Switzer's success is the trust he has with Trubisky.

Former UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, a great deep-ball thrower and improviser, meshed best with Hollins — who could be on the receiving end of Williams’ long throws and haul them in for easy touchdowns.

Switzer, a smaller target, needs a certain amount of precision on his passes to be his best. There were times when Switzer was open but Williams just didn’t see him or missed the short, simple throws that are always open in the Tar Heel offense.

This season, the Trubisky-Switzer connection is as strong as ever. The two can prey on a steady diet of out routes that go for five yards every single time.

The two have also been roommates for four years. Trubisky has faith in Switzer that if he throws the ball his way, his close friend will catch it. 

Here, it’s late in the fourth quarter in a tied ballgame. It’s 3rd-and-8, and North Carolina needs a first down. Who will Trubisky go to in this critical situation? None other than Switzer. 

The senior lines up against a defensive back, a one-on-one matchup that Trubisky identifies pre-snap and knows he can exploit.

The ball is right on the money, Switzer makes the catch and North Carolina picks up a first down to keep the drive alive.

It’s hard to quantify things like faith and trust, but this play shows just that. That’s a tiny window on an important third down in a tied game on the road at Florida State. 

And remember, Trubisky hasn’t thrown any interceptions this season, so he doesn’t take unnecessary risks with the football. He knows that if he is going to risk making that throw, the man on the other side is going to come down with that football.

Switzer does, North Carolina finishes the drive and you know how it ends.

@bauman_john @loganulrich

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