You’re alone. Sixty-thousand pairs of eyes are laser-focused on you — just you — from all around, but down on that football field, you’re just one man. And hurdling at you full-speed ahead, with reckless abandon, are 11 men with muscles cut from marble. Their only job is to hit you. Pummel you, if they must. Do anything in their power to stop you from bypassing them.
And your lone thought in that moment?
It’s difficult to believe, but for Anthony Ratliff-Williams, the proof is there. Two kick return touchdowns and nearly 900 yards in his lone season as North Carolina’s kickoff return specialist was proof of two things. First, that Ratliff-Williams is a star in the making, the next in line to follow Giovani Bernard, Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan as explosive weapons from UNC.
And second? That even in the dullest, dreariest of football seasons, there’s someone worth paying attention to on this year’s Tar Heels’ team.
“Definitely when I get the opportunity to return it, I’m definitely trying to go for six,” Ratliff-Williams said at Wednesday’s ACC Kickoff event in Charlotte. “I feel like any returner in the country would do the same.”
Except, not every return man in the country can do what the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Ratliff-Williams does. His 895 return yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2017 were second-best in the nation and fourth-best in UNC history (longtime NFL receiver Brandon Tate held two of the other three). The Tar Heels were one of just five teams in the country with more than 1,000 kickoff returns yards and multiple kickoff return touchdowns.
And that all came courtesy of Ratliff-Williams’ first real season of action.
Now picture what he can do as one of the team’s focal points.
“When I get the ball, I’m thinking, ‘Score,’” Ratliff-Williams said. “Just a little crease. ...That’s all I need. It’s one cut and go. If I see that crease, I’m gonna hit it as hard as I can, and if I get through it?
“It’s touchdown. Off to the races.”
That said, there is a new wrinkle this season that could potentially inhibit Ratliff-Williams’ success bringing back kicks: A new NCAA rule will allow players who fair catch for the ball inside the 25-yard line to start their offensive drive on the 25. That means if a kickoff lands near the goal line but not in the end zone (the 1- or 2-yard line, for example), a player can cut their losses and take a free start at the 25.
But with Ratliff-Williams back returning kicks, that isn’t something Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora is banking on.
“If I didn’t have a guy like Anthony, we would probably be fair-catching a lot,” Fedora said, “and I would imagine there would be a lot of teams that do that.
“The jury is out still a little bit on how we’re going to approach it, but it is nice to know that we’ve got a guy that when he does get it in his hands, he can go the distance.”
That Ratliff-Williams has emerged as such a return threat may be something of a surprise to the general public. At Butler High in Matthews, he was the top-ranked high school quarterback in the state — but not to Fedora. He said he saw this sort of breakthrough coming, even when Ratliff-Williams was still playing backup to another of UNC’s explosive weapons.
“Ant was always backing up (running back) T.J. (Logan) and I could see it in practice. It was coming,” Fedora said. “I thought, ‘When T.J. leaves, we’re going to miss T.J., yeah, but Ant’s gonna have his chance, too.’
“And now he is, and he’s doing some special things.”
Since Fedora took over in Chapel Hill in 2012, the Tar Heels are tied for the most return touchdowns in the nation with 16. Ratliff-Williams figures to improve that number this season, at least if his first full go-around is any indication. Factor in his usefulness at receiver — he also led UNC in receiving last season with 630 yards and six touchdowns — and it’s difficult to put a cap on Ratliff-Williams’ potential.
But before he leaves, Ratliff-Williams has one last thing he wants to say. Not just to everyone watching him on Saturdays in Kenan Memorial Stadium, but to everyone that lines up against him this season.
“Me being back there, I don’t really take that lightly. I don’t take that job lightly,” he said. “I know when I touch the ball, I have a chance to score.
“I just take the approach as, ‘Kick it to me... if you want.’”