- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ryan Switzer has heard the talk, even from his own coach, who warned him of the frustrations likely in store as North Carolina’s All-American punt returner prepares for his follow-up campaign in 2014. But Switzer isn’t interested in adjusting his expectations.
Sure, Switzer admits, he won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season as he did as a freshman. He expects opponents will do all they can to keep the ball out of his hands on special teams. Odds are, 2014 will be a waiting game -- but he’s more than willing to be patient.
“Some team is going to test me,” Switzer said. “And that’s all it takes.”
After all, Switzer points out, Cincinnati had a month to prepare for him when the two faced off in the Belk Bowl last season. After a quiet first half, the Bearcats finally relented and boomed a punt in Switzer’s direction. At first, it appeared he might call for a fair catch. Instead, he hauled in the kick, darted up the field and dashed into the end zone for an 86-yard touchdown -- his NCAA-record-tying fifth punt return TD of the season.
“He basically did that on his own,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s where he’s taking his game to another level. He’s having to find ways to create those opportunities for himself.”
Switzer’s sophomore campaign is all about creating those opportunities, and that means expanding his role in the Tar Heels offense, too.
While Switzer isn’t hedging his expectations on special teams, he said the key to his 2014 season will be making strides as a receiver. In high school, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Switzer had largely been a tailback, and his conversion to slot receiver was a rocky one at times last season. In his first 10 games, he hauled in only 19 catches for 147 yards as he struggled with the subtleties of the position.
“He’s one of those quick guys that has to settle down and try to find where the holes are in the zones or beating your guy off [man-to-man coverage],” quarterback Marquise Williams said. “One thing about him, though -- he’s ready to work. It doesn’t matter what it is, he’s ready to go out and compete and work and figure out what he needs to do to be the best receiver on the field.”
The signs of progress were evident by season's end. In Switzer’s final three games, he caught 13 passes for 194 yards, including a two-touchdown performance against Old Dominion.
Since the season ended, Switzer’s focus on developing his skills as a receiver has remained sharp. On special teams, he was a whirlwind, but he has learned that same approach doesn’t work at receiver. It’s about patience and precision, and the bulk of the action occurs before the ball finds his hands.
“If I can get those things down and become more quarterback friendly, I can get more balls and more yards,” Switzer said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Putting in the work to get there won’t be an issue. Fedora said the struggle with Switzer is often curbing his zealous work ethic, pulling in the reins to keep his star playmaker from exhausting himself. But in an offseason in which Switzer has heard so much about the opportunities he’s about to lose on special teams, he can’t help but be excited about how much potential there is for him to make an impact on offense.
This spring, North Carolina finds itself in the midst of a quarterback competition, with Williams and Mitch Trubisky vying for reps. A patchwork offensive line is struggling to find cohesion. A bevy of tailbacks are splitting carries, and the offense’s best weapon from a season ago -- tight end Eric Ebron -- is busy preparing for the NFL draft. Ebron’s 62 catches and 973 yards both led the Tar Heels, and his absence means a gaping hole in the passing game. Switzer would love to pick up some of that slack.
A year ago, Switzer was learning on the fly, but he made him impact in the one area he felt comfortable. As the offseason progresses, however, he’s feeling more and more at home as a receiver, too, and that will make it awfully tough for teams to keep the ball from him in 2014.
“That’s why I’ve put so much emphasis on making sure I’m right offensively,” Switzer said. “They can’t take me away offensively. They may try to do some things where I’m double-teamed, but I’m going to get the ball offensively, and that’s where I need to make my mark now.”