CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Ryan Switzer was scrolling through his Twitter feed last spring when he saw an unusual notification. A follower had tagged him in a video, one that showed a kid catching a football in the middle of a backflip. The tweet issued a challenge to the North Carolina receiver. You need to try this.
Facing this generation's version of a double dare, Switzer didn't back down. He enlisted the help of Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams, and in a matter of moments Switzer had done his Twitter follower proud; he nailed the two-handed catch in three tries and the one-handed grab in two attempts. "I've always been able to flip," Switzer says, "so we just decided to try it with the ball on my hands."
Switzer's dynamic ability should come as no surprise to the UNC faithful. The rising senior entered this spring as a top wideout in the ACC and one of the most lethal punt return men in the country. He ranked second on the roster in receiving yards (697) last fall, and he is already the conference's career leader in punt return touchdowns (seven). If he takes one more the house, the 5' 10", 185-pounder will tie the NCAA mark (eight) shared by Texas Tech's Wes Welker and Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins.
Yet Switzer's hopes for the 2016 season go beyond that. Last year he helped North Carolina tie a school record with 11 wins and reach the ACC title game, where it lost to Clemson 45–37. As one of several key pieces returning to Chapel Hill this fall, he plans to play a role in elevating the Tar Heels to the next level, and in doing so, dramatically boost his NFL draft stock.
"I believe I'm a first-round talent," Switzer says. "I believe I have the opportunity this year to show that."
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North Carolina coach Larry Fedora recognized Switzer's ability to improvise early. The prospect visited Chapel Hill twice for football camps before he enrolled as a freshman in 2013. Still, although Fedora saw Switzer's potential, he opted against slotting the newcomer into the Tar Heels' special teams rotation. Switzer played tailback at George Washington (W.Va.) High prior to converting to receiver at Carolina. He was tasked with a steep learning curve, and Fedora wanted to test his mental durability. "You got to find out, does a guy really have the courage to be able to stand there, with his chin up in the air, with 11 guys running down the field?" Fedora says. "Once we were able to make sure he could do that, the rest was pretty easy."
Fedora gradually incorporated Switzer into the special teams plan. During a 27–19 win at NC State that November, the freshman hit a turning point. Switzer didn't dominate—his longest return went for 16 yards—but he now looks back on the performance as a "clean" game in which he limited his mistakes. Switzer returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown in a 45–14 win over Virginia the following week. The first touchdown return of his career was also the fourth longest in school history.
Soon no one could contain Switzer: He tied a North Carolina record with two punt returns for touchdowns on Nov. 16 against Pittsburgh, brought a punt 64 yards to the end zone in an 80–20 rout of Old Dominion and ran a punt 86 yards for a score against Cincinnati in the 2013 Belk Bowl. His five punt return touchdowns—all in the season's final five games—set an ACC single-season record and tied the NCAA mark. He was named first-team all-conference (the first Tar Heels freshman to do so since 1977) and earned All-America honors as a specialist. "The light came on," Fedora says.
Switzer's evolving ability surprised even North Carolina's coaching staff. "I use it in this context: Any great player makes it look easy," says Gunter Brewer, UNC's co-offensive coordinator. "Michael Jordan made it look easy. A great racecar driver makes it look easy. Then you go try it yourself and you're like, wow."
Switzer's hype swelled leading into the 2014 campaign, with the sophomore adding to unmistakably huge expectations. Before preseason camp he told reporters, "I feel like if I can continue to do what I've been doing, I can possibly win a Heisman." But while Switzer went on to lead the Tar Heels with 757 receiving yards, he slumped a bit on special teams, averaging just 4.6 yards per punt return and failing to reach the end zone once. (He had a touchdown return called back against Miami.)
Switzer eventually realized he'd been forcing the issue. He had grown so enamored with reaching the end zone that his primary goal—securing advantageous field position—often went overlooked. "It was closer to that high school feeling to me: Just getting the ball and running," Switzer says.
Fedora, whose team opened 2–4 in 2014 before going on to finish 6–7, realized he had to reel in his sophomore. Following a 40–21 defeat to Rutgers in that December's Belk Bowl, he set out to harness Switzer's explosiveness. "Whenever he gets his hands on the ball, he wants to make something happen," the coach says. "A lot of times that can hurt you more than it can help you. He's had to learn that."
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Last season Switzer took his coach's advice to heart. He upped his punt return average to 13.7 yards in 2015, second among ACC players, and ran two back for touchdowns. As a receiver he averaged a career-high 12.7 yards per catch. After the season he flirted with the idea of declaring for the NFL, but after getting a mid-fourth-round grade from the draft advisory committee, Switzer elected return to campus.
Another seismic season could help frame him as a more complete draft prospect. Brewer, who previously coached two Biletnikoff Award winners in Marshall's Randy Moss and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, says the wideout needs to refine his fundamentals, from route running to film study. A renewed focus on his offensive impact could help Switzer become more of a dual-threat weapon. "I think the joint package helps," Fedora says. "At [the pro] level, the more you can do, the more valuable you are."
North Carolina returns a host of key names from last season. It brings back the bulk of its offensive line, including guard Caleb Peterson and center Lucas Crowley, as well as underrated running back Elijah Hood, who rushed for 1,463 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2015. The wild card is rising junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the presumed successor to the departed Williams. Behind Williams, UNC ranked 12th nationally in passing efficiency last fall. But Trubisky and Switzer could form a formidable tandem; the two have been roommates for three years, and Switzer says Trubisky boasts "the strongest arm" of any quarterback who has thrown to him in Chapel Hill.
Tar Heels coaches like to joke that Switzer only does two things: ball and chill. The latter is hard to dispute; according to Trubisky, he spends most of his down time binging on re-runs of The Office.But the former is more vital to Switzer's future. He hopes to close out his college career by leading a return trip to the ACC championship game. And, with a little luck, he could flip his way into the first round of the 2017 NFL draft.
"We were so close," Switzer says. "We can go higher. I know the guys we have coming back, and I wanted to be a part of that. The more team success we have, the more individual success I'll have."