North Carolina's Ryan Switzer blossoming into dangerous punt returner late in freshman season
The wins started piling up for North Carolina at the same time freshman Ryan Switzer began racking up touchdowns.
That might not be a coincidence.
The receiver and returner has accounted for eight TDs during the five-game winning streak that brought the Tar Heels from a 1-5 start to bowl eligibility.
The diminutive Switzer leads the nation and has tied an ACC record with four punt returns for touchdowns — and they've all come in North Carolina's past three games. He's the second player in Division I history with TDs on punt returns in three consecutive games.
"A lot of guys are getting more touches, and the more touches you get, you kind of just go back to what you've been doing your whole life with the ball in your hands," Switzer said.
North Carolina (6-5, 4-3) plays host to No. 24 Duke (9-2, 5-2) on Saturday. The Tar Heels have won five straight for the first time since 2001 — and they're not even the hottest team in the 919 area code because the Blue Devils are on a seven-game roll, their longest since 1994.
There's yet another link between the schools famously located 8 miles apart — both heavily recruited Switzer, the two-time West Virginia high school player of the year.
Switzer says Duke coach David Cutcliffe "made countless trips" to his hometown of Charleston, W.Va. He says he "loved their coaching staff" but "just didn't think it was the right fit for me" and ultimately opted for North Carolina.
And now it's up to Cutcliffe and his team to find a way to slow him down — or at least get their offense clicking so they won't have to punt to him.
"You can't be dependent on a quality punt, and it's not just dependent on your" coverage men, Cutcliffe said. "Even when you cover well, with him you have to tackle well. Covering well isn't enough."
Switzer has emerged as a big part of the team's youth movement: Each of UNC's last 23 touchdowns has been scored by either a freshman or a sophomore.
"The more games that we've played, the more comfortable us underclassmen get," Switzer said. "The more we pay attention to detail, and the more we go out and play, the more comfortable we get. ... A lot of guys are getting more touches, and the more touches you get, you kind of just go back to what you've been doing your whole life with the ball in your hands."
Things seemed to start falling into place for the Tar Heels once Switzer started to click. After having two long touchdowns called back due to penalties, he scored his first TD on a 13-yard catch last month against Boston College.
The following week, he threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Quinshad Davis on a trick play that sparked UNC past rival North Carolina State.
Then came his touchdown binge in the return game. He took a punt 85 yards for a score in the rout of Virginia, returned two punts for scores — including the go-ahead 61-yarder with 4:46 left — in beating Pittsburgh and added a 64-yard return against Old Dominion to go along with two TD catches in that 80-20 romp.
"Now the confidence is there," coach Larry Fedora said. "He's not worried about catching the football, he's not thinking about everything that I've given him to think about. He thought when you come out of high school, you go back there, you just catch a ball and run. Well, that's not the way we do things. He is so comfortable now that he is at that point where he doesn't have to think now."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.
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