Ryan Switzer entered his sophomore season talking about the Heisman Trophy and ended it talking about what went wrong – for him, for everyone else – for North Carolina amid a 6-7 season that had players questioning their teammates’ effort, and their program’s direction.
Now, entering his junior season, Switzer isn’t saying much at all. Which is by design, he said recently.
“I think I drew a lot of self-added pressure last year,” Switzer said.
He had good reason to expect big things, at least. Switzer ended his freshman season with one of the most memorable individual stretches in school history. He returned five punts for touchdowns in UNC’s final five games in 2013, and in doing so he set an ACC record – and tied the national record – for punt returns for touchdowns.
Which was all well and good except for the pressure Switzer felt to reproduce it all. Listen to what Switzer said about a year ago, in August 2014:
“I set some big goals for my freshman year, and I’ve set even bigger goals coming into my sophomore and junior season. I feel like if I can continue to do what I’ve been doing, I feel like I could possibly win a Heisman.”
He made it sound as if he expected it to be easy. Or at least as if he expected to make it look easy. Switzer entered last season talking as though it wasn’t a matter of if he’d eventually set the national record for punt returns for touchdowns, but a matter of when.
Switzer improved offensively last season and finished with 61 catches and four touchdown receptions. On punt returns, though, the success that defined his freshman season eluded him.
During his freshman season he averaged 20.9 yards on 24 punt returns. Last season, he averaged 4.6 yards on 37 returns, and he often appeared as if he was trying to make something out of nothing.
Switzer will enter his junior season, though, just as far away from the national punt return record. Which is to say, not all that far away at all, really. What he did in those final five games of the 2013 season left him tied for 11th nationally in career punt returns for touchdowns. He needs four more to tie the record, and five to break it.
But you wouldn’t know that based on the way Switzer is talking entering this season. Gone is the bravado and self-directed hype. Gone are the kind of sound bites Switzer often provided about a year ago when, at one point, he said other teams punted to him – and not away from him – “because people are stupid, man.”
No, this is a new Switzer. One who’s less outspoken and more self-aware. One who’s more willing, apparently, to let his play do the talking. Asked about his approach entering this year compared to last, Switzer said, “I didn’t have the year I wanted to.”
“I certainly had improved offensively, but I’m always expecting big things of myself and I thought I’d try it differently this year,” he said. “It turns out that when you don’t create that added pressure for yourself and you stay kind of out of the spotlight and everything, you’re kind of more at peace with yourself. I think that’s just a part of me maturing and growing and becoming a man.”
And so entering this season you won’t hear anything out of Switzer about the Heisman Trophy or about the intelligence of opponents that decide to kick it his way. You won’t hear about how the national record for punt returns for touchdowns is an inevitability. You won’t hear much at all along those lines, which is how he prefers it nowadays.