Ryan Switzer has heard plenty throughout his football career about his supposed limitations. Maybe he’s a little too small to reach an elite level. Maybe his West Virginia high school football pedigree isn’t enough to rub elbows with the guys from Florida, Texas and California.
Hearing that talk and actually listening to it are two very different things.
Because all the 5-foot-10, 185-pound former George Washington High star has done is put together a four-year career at the University of North Carolina that places him among the best at his position in both program and Atlantic Coast Conference history. That UNC career concludes for the slot receiver/punt returner Friday when the Tar Heels face Stanford in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
And Switzer’s 2016 campaign — another filled with record-breaking feats — has earned him the honor of Gazette-Mail Sportsperson of the Year.
The award goes each year to a West Virginian who has made an indelible mark in sports at a national level. Switzer joins such past winners as Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher, Alabama football coach Nick Saban, women’s basketball star Alexis Hornbuckle and former NFL superstar receiver Randy Moss.
Switzer doesn’t feel it’s a burden to represent the Mountain State as a college football player and person under such a bright spotlight. But he understands the responsibility he has.
“I do feel I’m representing more than just myself and my family,” Switzer said. “Every time I step on the field, I know I have people back home supporting me throughout my career. They’ve stuck with me. I know I’m creating a baseline for the young student-athletes back home, give them a little hope and a little motivation that they, too, can make it out and compete at the highest level.”
Switzer’s name can be found at or near the top of a slew of UNC, ACC and NCAA records. He holds the school records for receptions in a season (91) and a career (239). Eighteen receiving yards in the Sun Bowl will allow him to pass Hakeem Nicks for the school’s career record.
Switzer is one of just three receivers in UNC history with a 1,000-yard season, with a 1,027 yards entering the Sun Bowl. A 200-yard game Friday — and he had one of those already this season against Pittsburgh — would give him the single season record.
His seven career punt return touchdowns are an ACC record and one short of tying the NCAA record. His five punt return touchdowns as a freshman tied the NCAA single-season record. He also tied an ACC record with 16 catches against Pitt and broke the conference record with 30 catches in back-to-back games.
And all that comes from a player whose formative years as a receiver didn’t come until he arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When he won back-to-back Kennedy Awards at George Washington, he did so as a running back.
“His progression has been really tremendous in learning how to run routes, how to get open, how to recognize coverages, where the weaknesses in the coverages, how the concepts fit, all of those things,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said earlier this season. “I mean, it’s been leaps and bounds how far he’s come.”
That progress, Switzer said, did not come easily.
“It was tough as hell,” he said. “The jump from high school to college is already big enough. Changing positions and learning nuances of routes and route combinations and coverages and checks and who’s the hot read, there are so many things that go into it.
“Coach Fedora and [offensive coordinator Gunter] Brewer really stuck with me,” Switzer continued. “It could have been easy for them to just throw me aside or redshirt me. But they stuck with me and gave me some opportunities on special teams, and the rest was really on me to pick people’s brains and make sure I continued to get better.”
Switzer hasn’t just made headlines for what he’s done on the field. ESPN chronicled the friendship he sparked in middle school with Clifton Reid III, a student with Down syndrome and on the autism spectrum. It is a close friendship that started at John Adams Middle School and continues to this day with long phone calls and visits when Switzer is home on break. And it has helped Reid blossom as a student and person.
“He’s done more for me than I could ever do for him,” Switzer said of his friend. “I know there’s more to it than [football].”
Switzer’s football coach at George Washington, Steve Edwards Jr., said that kindness is no surprise. Switzer’s parents, Michael and Ashley, always have kept him grounded, and that personality has shone through for a long time.
“He’s just a loving person,” Edwards said. “He’s always been that guy, always looked out for other and has always been thoughtful. Always has been.”
There hasn’t been much about Switzer that surprises Edwards. He was there for Switzer’s first youth football carry, where he made a cut back across the field that few players have the vision to make. Switzer’s jaw-dropping high school exploits sometimes turned him from coach to fan.
“He did things that, you’re on the sidelines, you just laugh and smile,” Edwards said. “You say, ‘Did you just see that?’ You find yourself talking to the chain gang and talking to the officials and saying, ‘Hey, man, what did you think about that?’ He was just such a joy and a lot of fun.”
While Switzer’s UNC career ends Friday, it is just one stop on a longer path. He already has a spot on the Senior Bowl roster and is a prime candidate for an invitation to the NFL Draft Combine. Switzer has eyes on an NFL career. Calling it a dream, though, might not be fitting. Rather, call it a goal. Dreams can often remain fantasy. Goals are attainable.
SI.com’s initial draft rankings had Switzer as the No. 9 receiver available in the 2017 draft. CBSSports.com and Scouts Inc. have him as the No. 18 receiver, with CBSSports projecting him as a fourth-round pick.
Switzer knows there’s plenty of hard work ahead if he wants to be among the upcoming draft’s higher picks.
“I know there’s a bigger picture and there’s more to it than just one play or one performance,” he said. “It’s about being good on a consistent basis. It’s been my makeup since I’ve been a kid.”
That childhood spent in West Virginia is something he said has molded him into the player and person he is now. And he’ll continue representing the Mountain State as he continues down life’s path.
“West Virginia made me who I am,” he said. “It provided me a great childhood, a great middle school and high school experience and I’m forever grateful.”