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North Carolina’s Switzer still threat against Pitt

North Carolina sophomore All-American Ryan Switzer soothed some hurt feelings in his native West Virginia last season, when he returned two punts for touchdowns against Pitt.

“This was a big step for me as a true freshman college football player on the big stage against a team that I grew up hating,” he told reporters this week while taking a break from preparations for the Pitt rematch Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“It helped win a lot of hearts over in good, old West Virginia for leaving and going out of state (to college). I think I made some people happy (by) beating their rival.”

Switzer originally broke a few of those hearts — plus some in State College and several other outposts — when he matriculated to North Carolina in 2013.

Switzer, who grew up in Charleston, W.Va., and said he also dislikes the Pittsburgh professional teams, was considered one of the top athletes in the state when he left George Washington High School. He was two-time state player of the year as a 5-foot-9, 166-pound running back, and also helped his school win West Virginia basketball and sprint relay championships in the 4×100 and 4×200.

Then, all of sudden, he was gone.

At the time, Switzer said, “it’s not that big of a deal.”

“It’s not like I’m the next LeBron James or anything. That’s definitely not me,” said Switzer, who had 11 offers from Power 5 schools, including Florida State, West Virginia and Penn State.

In any case, Switzer lived up to his high school hype, tying an NCAA record and setting the ACC mark with five punts returned for touchdowns last season. Now listed at 5-10, 180 pounds, he has turned into a bigger threat in the passing game than he was a year ago, leading the team with 44 receptions.

He also has thrown a touchdown pass in each of the past two seasons. He also volunteered his kicking services — he hit a 38-yard field goal as a sophomore in high school — but North Carolina coach Larry Fedora declined the offer.

Surprisingly, Switzer has not been a repeat threat in the return game this season. He has returned 30 punts but is 10th in the ACC with an average of 5.2 yards — compared to a nation-best 20.9 last year — and no touchdowns. The ensuing fan criticism, along with North Carolina’s 4-5 record, led to him severing ties with social media, he told NorthCarolina.scout.com.

Fedora said opponents were kicking away from Switzer early in the season, but that hasn’t been the case recently.

“Ryan really tried to make too much happen,” Fedora said. “That kind of got him behind the eight ball in a lot of situations. I think he’s becoming much more patient and just taking advantage of the ones that are there.”

Switzer didn’t return his first punt for a touchdown last season until Nov. 9 against Virginia, so Pitt still considers him a threat. In fact, special teams coach Chris Haering said his North Carolina video study revealed three returns for touchdowns nullified by penalties.

“He’s still doing his thing,” Haering said.

Haering said it’s not always practical to punt out of bounds.

“It’s just a harder angle fo those guys,” he said. “It’s difficult to do and get a decent punt. You try to directional punt, but just kicking it out of bounds is very difficult. You just don’t pick that up in a week.”

The key is punter Ryan Winslow hanging the ball in the air, Haering said.

“He has to hang it up there, so we can get down there and get it covered. It’s a challenge. It’s going to take all 11 guys to stop him.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.


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