Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
s a boy growing up in West Virginia, Ryan Switzer was active. Soccer, baseball, basketball, football—he took them all seriously, and he played each sport until he was forced to settle on one. His father, Michael, a photographer, had been a professional bodybuilder and was committed to good health and working out, something Ryan picked up on at an early age, and his mother, Ashley, believed in letting the second of her five children, and her only boy, be just that—a boy. It was a recipe for producing a competitive child.
Ashley remembers the bloody noses and the scraped knees. "He came home every day with some kind of injury or ailment," she laughs.
While watching Ryan play any of his sports, she's always been the more boisterous of the parents, cheerleading; Michael, meanwhile, has taken a more measured approach, viewing Ryan's games from behind his camera.
Ashley remembers Ryan playing with neighborhood kids down the street and getting banged up because they were older and faster and stronger than he was. He would inevitably return home, upset and frustrated, complaining that they wouldn't give him the ball.
"He'd throw a fuss," she says. "But I tried not to baby him. I told him, ‘They're not going to give you the ball—you need to figure out how to get the ball.' He would say, ‘Okay,' wipe his nose, and go back out and play."
Fast-forward to 2013, Switzer's freshman season in Chapel Hill. The 5-10, 175-pound, Charleston, West Virginia native was once again the younger kid playing with the older kids, trying to figure out how to get the ball.
Primarily a running back in high school, Switzer was tasked with taking on a new position, wide receiver, a transition he knew would be a challenge. But he'd learned the playbook and he felt prepared to make an impact.
During the early and middle part of the season, he was good enough to find a spot on the field, seeing action both in the return game and in the slot. Always confident in his playmaking ability, he couldn't figure out why he wasn't leaving a bigger mark. He'd had flashes of the player he could be when two big-play touchdowns were called back at critical moments in games—a catch-and-run on a Bryn Renner pass against Georgia Tech in the third quarter in Atlanta and a punt return against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, plays that may have changed the outcomes of the games had the flags not gone against the Heels.
"I told him, ‘They're not going to give you the ball—you need to figure out how to get the ball.'"
"It was a punch in the gut," says Switzer, who acknowledges that the transition from high school to college was made more difficult by having those touchdowns nullified.
Missed opportunities like that, especially if you're a young guy, can make you wonder if you're going to get more scoring chances. But Switzer admits that the real issue for him early in the season was that he was thinking too much.
"The hardest part for me was that I felt robotic out there the first part of the season," he says. "I was doing what I was supposed to do, but that was all—I was running the routes, I was where I needed to be, but I didn't feel like I was playing. I was doing what I was asked to do but nothing more."
His slow start, he contends, had nothing to do with the quality of the competition.
"It was a matter of experience, realizing that I needed to stop thinking and start remembering what I've done my whole life," he says. "Once I did that, the door opened for me on offense and special teams. I was able to get lined up faster, and in return it led to more touches and more touchdowns. Stop thinking and play—part of that is confidence."
For Switzer, he had to blend the two sides of himself that his parents represent—the boisterous side of his mother that emerges when he's on the field and the even-keeled nature of his father, who doesn't get too high when things go well or too low when a mistake is made. Within that balance lies Switzer's confidence, a key to his success. Switzer isn't just an athletic talent with scary speed. He considers himself one of the hardest-working players on the team, and pound-for-pound one of the strongest. Downtime involves going to the gym. But alongside the hard work comes an air of confidence and a player who likes to have fun, attributes that helped him turn his season around and tie an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns, while also emerging as a receiving threat.
"I have a little bit of cockiness on the field," says Switzer. "I'm a firm believer that you can't make it in a sport—you can't make it in life—without some cockiness in yourself and your abilities. You need to think you're better than the next person and the next person. Especially with me not being the average size for a football player, I have to have that swagger, and once I found it last year, everything was back to normal with me and I was able to play how I'm capable of playing."
Last season, Switzer was named First Team All-American, First Team Freshman All-American, and First Team All-ACC. He broke UNC school records with 501 punt return yards and a punt return average of 20.9 yards. Some of the moves he made during those returns, including the 86-yard scramble against Cincinnati that helped him earn the Belk Bowl MVP, were as creative as they come, leaving Carolina fans awestruck and excited about the future and making defenders feel helpless.
When talking about his punt returns, Switzer smirks. "I just like to have fun out there," he says.
Having fun on the field is nothing new for Switzer. He knew from the moment he stepped between the lines—from the time his parents first allowed him to play organized football in the fifth grade—that he wanted to play at this level and beyond. His love of the game shows not just in the moves he strings together, but also in the way he carries himself on the field.
"I'm one of the loudest guys on the team."
"I'm one of the loudest guys on the team," he says. "If all the outside noise was shut off and you heard only the players on the field, you'd hear me the most. Talking to myself and to my teammates and getting under the skin of my opponents gets me hyped. When I tell myself to do the things I know I'm capable of—when I actually hear it—that makes a difference….When I'm running a route or someone is covering me, I'm talking during the play. When I make a cut and lose someone, I'll say something like, ‘Gotcha.'"
"Maybe not ‘gotcha' exactly—I'll leave it to the imagination. I don't realize I'm doing it, though, it's just something that happens."
Although Switzer's repertoire of moves seems to be endless, he can't take credit for all the creativity he displays. While at George Washington High School, he got to know current Arizona Cardinals receiver and former West Virginia Mountaineer, Tavon Austin, and talked to him about the moves that made Austin his own highlight show each Saturday in Morgantown. From Austin, he learned about the "dead leg."
"I love watching his game," says Switzer. "He has this move where he's running full-speed and he just stops, the defender's leg buckles, and he keeps on going. The defender's leg just dies. It's a move I used in high school and brought out a little bit toward the end of last year when I was getting more comfortable. That's my favorite move. I can't take credit for it—it's his move—but I feel like the more comfortable I get, the more swagger I have in my ability and the more I'll be able to break it out next year."
Although the highlight-reel returns are what most think of when they reflect on Switzer's first season in Chapel Hill, the rising sophomore sees vast improvement in his receiving role, and rather than look at the touchdown returns, he focuses on the mistakes he made on the field. He credits head coach Larry Fedora for helping him continue to progress in the return game and—wait for this—thinks his freshman season ?.he says. "There are a lot of things I could have done better. When I go back and watch the film in the early season, I see all kinds of mistakes. In the first several games, if I'd been at the level I was at by season's end, I could have had 10 or 11 returns. There were times I fair-caught the ball when the nearest guy was 15 yards away. I just didn't have the confidence yet. So my main focus coming into this season is making sure I stay aggressive and continue to put pressure on the guys coming at me."
Staying aggressive may prove difficult. Switzer understands that the secret is out—opposing coaches are going to kick away from him and opposing players are going to be looking for him. But don't expect him to shy away—he's never been one to back down.
"I'm not going to get a lot of opportunities, so I'll have to take more risks," he says. "I need to approach each return with the mentality that it's the one—that I have to return this kick. I know I'm not going to score every time, but I need to think that way."
And if he doesn't see many returns?
"If a punter is aiming it out of bounds, then he's not going to kick it as far as he can," he says. "That leads to better field position and to teams going for it on fourth down more often. Ultimately, it's a lose-lose for them, and if they don't punt it to me, they're just hurting themselves."
"I have to have that swagger."
The role of punt returner can be pretty lonely, especially when mistakes are made. But you have to be ready to move on to the next play. He's seen his father, as a self-employed photographer, look at each day as a new day, waking up every morning trying to find clients and build relationships. That approach has resonated with the younger Switzer.
"I've seen him go out and find work every day," says Switzer. "He's had to make his own work, find his own jobs. And I try to take that approach to the field, both to the offensive side of the ball and to the return game. After a mistake on the offensive side of the ball, you can move on to the next play. With special teams it sticks in your head longer, so you have to be mentally strong enough to block it out. At the end of the year I was mentally strong enough to block out mistakes and move on. That's a key component to being a good punt returner. You have to have a short-term memory, just like a quarterback. You have to move on to the next play."
With all the success he experienced during his freshman season, Switzer never lets it get to his head. Michael Switzer has always instilled humility in his son, and he and Ashley have taught him that at the end of the day, compassion for others is what makes them most proud. When Ryan was four years old, Ashley remembers picking him up from preschool. As Ryan got in the car, his teachers asked Ashley to step outside and talk to her for a minute. They wanted to share something with her. They told her that during the lunch hour, Ryan spent 45 minutes inside, helping the smallest boy in the class make baskets on the little hoop. The teachers were teary-eyed as they explained that Ryan was lifting him up. They'd seen the boy struggle because of his size, and it made him sad and frustrated. At that moment, the Switzers knew they were doing something right with Ryan.
"I've always said that no one is as tough on Ryan as I've been," says Michael. "I always made sure to communicate to him what we expect of him and how he needs to carries himself, not just on the field but off it, and he's always lived up to those expectations."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the person Ryan is, the combination of humble and confident, has been influenced by having four sisters. At home, although he's never acted like an important person because of his athletic accomplishments, his sisters—one who recently graduated from Marshall University, two in high school, and one going on three years old—keep him grounded in their own ways.
"At this point, I don't know what I have to do to impress them," Ryan says, laughing. "Except for my baby sister, they don't think I'm all that special. I'm just their brother. And, really, that's probably a good thing. I've always been protective of them, and I've been able to be exposed to a lot of things from a female perspective. I think it's helped me a lot."
For Switzer, playing for himself, his family, and his teammates is only part of the equation. Every time he steps on the field he carries with him his larger home: West Virginia.
"If you're from West Virginia, whether you realize it or not, you have a big responsibility," he says. "Not a lot of guys make it out of West Virginia, so you're representing your state, your hometown, and all the people you know….Players from West Virginia don't get a lot of respect. We don't get the publicity the guys from Florida get. That affected how I was ranked in high school and how I was recruited."
"People ask me how I can do better than five return touchdowns, as if there's no way for me to improve on that."
In high school, Switzer got the chance to work out with West Virginia native Randy Moss, who stressed the sense of pride he's always felt for his home state, even as he climbed the ranks to become one of the best receivers the NFL has ever seen.
Switzer swells with that same pride. "It's a connection you feel when you see someone from West Virginia because it's such a small area," he says. "Being on national television, accomplishing things at a high level, you know that people back home are rooting for you and cheering you on because of where you're from. I know that people wanted me to choose West Virginia for school, but I've gotten a lot of support now that some of the hurt feelings have passed."
Switzer's parents, who continue to be part of the same West Virginia community they've always lived in, believe that Ryan represents the values West Virginians hold dear.
"The people here are so hard-working and they take such pride in what they do," says Ashley. "I think Ryan embodies that West Virginia work pride. He doesn't quit and he takes the negative comments about his size or whatever and uses them as fuel for the fire. That represents West Virginia and that's the way we feel here—we're determined and hardworking."
As Switzer continues develop as a wide receiver and a special teams force in Chapel Hill, you can expect the values from his West Virginia roots to help him reach his potential.