North Carolina freshman Ryan Switzer, a two-time Kennedy Award winner at George Washington, eludes Pitt's Bryan Murphy on one his his two punt return touchdowns.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Throughout this college football season, WVU's football team searched for a spark.
Perhaps, though, it had one. And let Ryan Switzer get away.
The two-time Kennedy Award winner from George Washington High grew up a Mountaineer fan, yet he chose to attend and play ball at North Carolina - where he's flourished as a true freshman.
Last Saturday was seemingly a dream come true for the Charleston (or as he prefers "The Hill!") native. Playing in an ACC game for the streaking Tar Heels, Switzer ran back not one but two punt returns for touchdowns against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. The second one, which went for 61 yards with about five minutes to play, proved to be the game-winning score in a 34-27 UNC victory.
"It was fun," Switzer said by phone Tuesday. "Growing up I didn't like Pitt very much. It was fun to play at Heinz Field and against Pitt."
Earlier in the game, Switzer gave the Tar Heels a 24-3 lead with a 65-yard return for a score before the Panthers rallied.
"He's a special player," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told the press afterward.
Here's how special: Switzer is No. 1 in the country among FBS players in punt returns for scores with three. In punt return average, he's No. 4 with an 18.4 average. Only Auburn's Chris Davis (22.5), North Texas's Brelan Chancellor (20.1) and Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley (18.8) rank ahead of him there. (He's two spots ahead of Marshall's Devon Smith.)
In addition, Switzer is fifth among Tar Heel receivers with 19 catches for 147 yards (a 7.7 per catch average) with a score. He's carried the ball twice. In all purpose yardage, Switzer is fifth on his team, averaging 47.3 yards per game.
"He's probably the most explosive guy we've had on offense," said UNC passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer on Tuesday. "He's a very dynamic guy. He's a different type of player as a receiver, running back and return man. He's kind of like what Tavon Austin was for West Virginia."
Brewer knows personnel. At one time he assisted Bob Pruett at Marshall and coached Randy Moss. At Oklahoma State he coached current Dallas Cowboy star Dez Bryant. While in Stillwater he also recruited and coached current Jacksonville Jaguar Justin Blackmon. (Brewer and WVU's Dana Holgorsen were on the same OSU staff before both left after the 2010 season.)
"What you saw Ryan do in high school is what type of player we think he is," Brewer said. "He has the ability to make people miss with the ball in his hands. When I saw his [high school game film] you just held your breath waiting for the next highlight.
"He's a unique person. His [5-foot-8] size allows him to do some things. He has speed, vision, running skills and receiving skills."
Switzer's skills were on display at GW, where he rushed for 5,175 yards and 72 touchdowns in his final two seasons. He was only the sixth player in the 66-year history of the Kennedy Award to win multiple times. He was also just the 15th player from the Mountain State to be named to the Parade All-America team.
During those final two years, Switzer received offers from many schools, including Florida State, Penn State and, late, WVU. Although he grew up a Mountaineer fan, Switzer chose the Tar Heels.
"There's not really much to say [about choosing UNC over WVU]," Switzer said. "[WVU] went in a different direction. They offered a scholarship, but I didn't feel sincerity. But that's OK. It's all for the best."
Switzer said in light of WVU's football woes this season, he's received "a lot" of feedback from Mountaineer fans wishing he were in Morgantown.
"I'm sure, though, they're happy with the recruits they got," Switzer said. "I'm just happy for the love of fans that don't care where state kids go."
Where Switzer's career goes from here is anyone's guess. Here, though, is Brewer's:
"I think he has unlimited potential. He can be a dynamic player. And you see more and more players his size in the NFL, like [New England's] Danny Amendola and [Denver's] Wes Welker. But Ryan has more speed than those guys. You see [New Orleans'] Darren Sproles.
"What Ryan has is speed and heart."
Brewer said although Switzer is 5-8 or 5-9, "he's a well-put-together athlete. He trains. He swims. He's just not real tall."
Switzer, by the way, doesn't see himself in the same category as Amendola and Welker.
"Those kind of guys are put in the same category as me because of the color of our skin, to be honest," Switzer said. "There's nothing wrong, those are great players to be compared to. But I look up to Tavon [Austin] a little more. I got close to him and he's stayed in touch, even though he's become big-time. He called the other day [after the Pitt game].
"What I try to do, though, is not compare. I want to make a name for myself."
He certainly has a running start on that. Just don't, he warns, get carried away. This is not the perfect dream first season.
"A little bit," Switzer said. "It started off kind of slow. I had a couple touchdowns called back. But things picked up."
Switzer had a punt return for score called back against Virginia Tech and a long reception for a score called back against Georgia Tech. His fortunes, however, have indeed "picked up."
"It's pretty neat [to be No. 1 in punt return touchdowns]," Switzer said. "There are guys out there returning kicks like [Oregon's] De'Anthony Thomas, [Oklahoma State's] Josh Stewart and [Duke's Jamison] Crowder. It's a big honor. But if I didn't have that one against Virginia Tech called back I'd have a bigger lead. My goal is to get the NCAA record [of five returns for a score]."
That's within reach. The 5-5 Tar Heels finish against Old Dominion and Duke.
Here's the funny thing, though. Switzer doesn't consider any of the returns the high point of his season.
"The last [punt return for score] was nice," he said. "But I'm not going to lie. The biggest thing I struggle with is blocking, especially against bigger guys. Well, against Pitt, I got a pretty good crackback block on a screen play. That's been my biggest moment."
Switzer, by the way, had a nice crowd, including his parents and grandmother, in Pittsburgh to see the play.
"Every time he did something," Brewer said, "the section erupted. You knew they were there. It was pretty exciting."
So, it seems, is Switzer's future.
"Hopefully, I'll continue to progress and mature and I'll get a bigger part on the team," said the freshman. "I've got a lot of touches this year. The coaches said they've never done this much with a freshman before. I hope I proved to them through my kick returns I can handle a bigger role."
He's proving a lot to many. In a hurry.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.