UNC's Switzer for Heisman? He thinks so
CHAPEL HILL — One of the smallest players on the team is also one of the loudest.
This year, North Carolina sophomore Ryan Switzer didn't even wait until training camp to make some noise. Last month, the 5-foot-10 receiver/returner wrote an open letter to fans asking for more support and told reporters that his goal is to win the Heisman Trophy.
Both actions prompted some mixed responses over social media, but Switzer wasn't backing down from anything Saturday during the team's preseason media day.
"I'm not a shy guy, so I'm not going to shy away from what I want to achieve," Switzer said. "I've been doubted my whole life, so the feedback I'm getting is nothing new. ... If people aren't talking about you, you're not doing something right."
Switzer had plenty of people talking last season after he tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns, becoming the first true freshman at UNC to earn first-team all-America honors. The West Virginia native is set on getting at least six this season, which would catapult him past the career record of eight.
"Anytime you can get in the end zone as many times as I did, and any time you can perform like I did, your confidence is going to skyrocket," Switzer said. "I set some big goals for my freshman year, and I’ve set even bigger goals coming into (this) season. I feel like if I can continue to do what I’ve been doing, I can possibly win a Heisman.
"It's my personality. It's what I was born with. Once I completed one thing, I move on to the next."
Switzer said he's stronger, faster and more explosive than last year, hitting new benchmarks in the weight room (such as 300 pounds in the power clean), dropping one percent of his body fat and adding weight (he's listed at 180 pounds) so he can take heavier hits.
On the field, he's working on developing more as a slot receiver, focusing on running routes and blocking after playing running back in high school.
Being a bigger part of the offense will be the next step in Switzer's progression. He had 32 catches for 341 yards last year, mostly on short passes.
With the loss of tight end Eric Ebron, Switzer said he expects more opportunities for long routes this year.
He also talked to UNC coach Larry Fedora about doing kickoff returns alongside sophomore T.J. Logan, who ran two touchdowns back himself last season.
Still, his specialty is returning punts. His average of 20.9 yards an attempt broke the single-season school record of 17.5 set by Charlie Justice in 1948.
Fedora praised Switzer's vision, his ability to get to full speed in two steps and his attitude.
"On the field, he is fearless," Fedora said. "He’s got that little-man syndrome of 'I’ll just show you, watch.’ He’s going to prove it to everybody."
And Fedora said that Switzer hasn't even scratched the surface of what he could accomplish. All five punt returns for touchdowns came in the second half of the season.
"When you go back and look at film in the first five games, he probably could’ve returned three or four, but he didn’t," Fedora said. "It wasn’t because he wasn’t as good. He’s the same guy. But it wasn’t until about that point in the season that he looked up and realized, ‘You know what? Wow, I can do this.’ He started playing with some confidence ... and he had a heck of a run."
Though opponents this year might kick away from Switzer, he thinks he'll still get plenty of opportunities. Cincinnati had a month to prepare before the Belk Bowl, where Switzer unleashed an 86-yard punt return and was singled out as the game's most valuable player.
When asked why teams would try him, Switzer responded: "Because people are stupid. Every team we play thinks they have the best punt unit in the country and that I won't do it to them."
Proclamations like that show why confidence won't be an issue for Switzer this season. Now fans are eager to see how he can back it up.
"I try to bring a lot of energy to the table," Switzer said. "That's just my personality."
Follow Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.