CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Heisman watch can never start early enough, and for many pundits, 2014’s started as soon as FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was walking off the podium in December. But there’s probably a name that hasn’t been mentioned on most of those watch lists. A name that, if UNC’s Ryan Switzer were making a watch list, he wouldn’t hesitate to include.
He became the first true freshman in UNC history to earn All-America honors, tying a single-season NCAA record for punt-return touchdowns (five) and setting a new record in the ACC. And that was without returning a single punt for a touchdown until the ninth game of the season.
He set new records at UNC in punt-return yardage (502) and average (20.9). If he returns four more punts for a touchdown in his next three seasons at North Carolina, he will hold the NCAA record for most punt-return touchdowns.
And so yes, he admitted, if he continues on the trajectory that he’s on in terms of his work on special teams and becoming a better wide receiver, he thinks he can win a Heisman trophy.
Most players are reluctant to put that kind of goal or dream for themselves out there for public consumption.
Switzer, according to backup quarterback and roommate Mitch Trubisky, isn’t most people.
"I think Ryan’s confidence is one of a kind," Trubisky said. "And it shows.
"He’s not shy about his goals at all. Ryan’s going to put it out there. Whatever he sets for himself, it’s within reach. He has big dreams; I have big dreams. It’s good rooming with him because you know hard work does pay off. It showed for him last year. I see how hard he works and that really influenced me to work harder and set my goals high."
It hasn’t always been easy for Switzer. In fact, it’s rarely been easy.
Generously listed at 5-foot-10, he’s always had to make up for his lack of height with an abundance of attitude. He calls it "the dog." He’s had it ever since he can remember–or, at least, the first time he heard the doubters, loud and clear.
As a freshman at George Washington High School in West Virginia, he fumbled twice in the fourth quarter against the No. 1 team in the state. Switzer’s team lost.
After the game, his phone blew up with angry text messages–not just from his classmates, mind you, but also from parents–detailing how awful he was.
"I almost wanted to quit football. Being a 15-year-old kid, when you have something like that happen and football’s been your whole life, it’s tough," Switzer said. "Fortunately, I was able to get through it. That’s why I’m here today, and that’s why my confidence is where it’s at, because I could honestly care less what anybody except my mom and dad on this earth have to say about me.
"My whole mentality changed. I had soft skin my freshman year, so what people said affected me. I was still a kid. But I learned quick that it’s a cold world. A lot of people in the world are looking out for themselves. So I had to get the tougher skin, and I did. Along with the tough skin came the dog, and it’s here to stay."
He knows that putting himself out there in regards to winning the Heisman is a risk. He is well aware of that risk. He has already seen that reflected in his mentions on Twitter from rival fans. Switzer has never been shy about interacting on social media and having a little fun, he said, and this is no different.
Switzer’s thick skin dates back to that moment as a high school freshman, and it’s what helped him get through a tough start to last season. Now that he’s seen what he can do on the field, though, he’s now sure that in addition to that thick skin, he has a supreme confidence in his own capabilities.
There are issues with this stated goal of winning the Heisman, of course. There’s the fact that the award almost always goes to a quarterback or a running back, for one. But Switzer–and his teammates, for that matter–think that if he grows as a receiver (figuratively, of course), and keeps doing what he’s doing as a returner, it’s a goal that’s within reach.
"He already tied the punt return record. So I think that if he could break that and continue to make big plays for the offense, the Heisman isn’t too far out of the question," Trubisky said. "Ryan’s going to set the bar high for himself and I’m going to do everything I can to help him as a teammate, along with other guys on the team. I want to help them with their goals."
But he’ll be fighting an uphill battle, of course, and the chances are very slim that he gets invited to New York for the ceremony, much less wins the whole thing. He’s not put up great receiving numbers yet, and teams are more likely to avoid punting to him this season. North Carolina will almost certainly not win more than 10 games (at the very most), and the Heisman voters almost always skew toward players on winning teams.
But Switzer thinks, maybe the voters should learn to think outside the box.
"People are calling me just a returner," Switzer said. "I thought I had pretty decent offensive stats last year. My good buddy growing up (former West Virginia receiver/return man), Tavon Austin, he only had 15 catches his freshman year, and he was a first-round draft pick.
"And obviously, having the year on special teams that I did, I feel like that year would outshadow an 800- or 900-yard receiving year because it’s not done very often. So I think that’s the reason, and I think people are waiting to see if I can add on to that offensively. It hasn’t been a problem with me so far."
After the light bulb clicked on for him last season, he’s been on a mission. He’s worked on his body. He can’t change his height, but he’s added muscle and strength, and dropped his body fat down to just four percent.
The next step for him, according to head coach Larry Fedora, is becoming a wide receiver. Switzer was just a running back in high school, and obviously wide receiver is a lot more complicated on the college level. Fedora said he’s been a quick study.
"I think his biggest growth has been understanding what it takes to be a receiver, and be a complete receiver–the blocking aspect of it, the importance of blocking on the perimeter, running routes, understanding the whole concept of the route and how your position fits into the route and then how to get open on the route," Fedora said. "Most kids are pretty natural when you put them into a 1-on-1 situation and you just (have to) beat this man.
"But understanding how to sit down in zones, and how to use your body when you’re open and when you’re not, I think that’s where he’s grown the most. Naturally, he can catch the football, and he can run with it. He sees things that other people can’t see. But just learning the nuances of the position, I think is probably where he’s grown the most."
Since the end of the bowl game win against Cincinnati last season, Switzer said he’s been thinking about the Heisman trophy. He remembered when his friend, Austin, had been in the running for it (he didn’t get invited to the ceremony). In spite of Austin’s snub, Switzer thinks he can at least make it into the discussion.
And he wanted to make it clear that while people might laugh at him setting such a goal, he understands why, on a certain level.
"I believe it’s a realistic goal for me," Switzer said. "I don’t think it’s a–I don’t know what you want to call it, but I don’t see anything wrong with setting goals for yourself, especially with the season I had.
"Don’t get me wrong–I’m not out there chasing a Heisman trophy. But I feel like with what we’ve got coming back, and I’m only going into my sophomore year. I’m not saying I want to win it this year, but I want to have a great season, and I want us to have a great season. Any awards and accolades that come along with it are fine with me."
Fedora heard about Switzer’s comments for the first time on Saturday, and had no issue with it. He said that prior to Switzer’s arrival on campus, the incoming freshamn told him his goals were to be an All-American, and to win the Heisman. Well, after his first year on campus, Switzer can check the first one off the list.
"I don’t have a problem with that," Fedora said. "That’s the kid’s goals. I don’t know that he’s walking around telling people that it’s a definite deal and he’s going to do it, and he’s going to do it this year or whatever."
"But I think if you talked personally with any of these kids, and talked to them about their goals, you’re going to find out that their expectations are very high for themselves, and they should be."
Trubisky admitted as much, but also said unspoken goals are abundant.
"I think everyone has special goals of their own that they just keep to themselves," Trubisky said. "You don’t need to put them out there; you just keep them in the back of your mind."
It’s not a typical thing for an athlete to do, to be so honest. But he’s not the first Tar Heel in recent memory to vocalize those goals. Former tight end Eric Ebron was never shy about discussing his own abilities. Reigning starting quarterback Marquise Williams said when Ebron got to campus as a freshman, he wrote in his journal that he would be a first-round NFL draft pick in three years.
That’s exactly what happened in April.
"I love Ryan, and what he’s been doing for this football team is unbelievable. If he keeps doing it, I’m pretty sure he will be up for like a Heisman watch," Williams said. "He’s doing things I don’t think anybody did as a freshman. He’s just working hard to be the best. He works out seven days a week, and that’s one thing about him–he’s a competitive guy. No matter how small he is, he’s just going to be ready to go.
"You have to play with confidence because it takes you a long way. If you don’t play with confidence, who’s going to have confidence in you if you don’t have it in yourself? That’s how I look at it."
"The dog" in him, Switzer said, is always making mental notes of his doubters. Well, sort of. Not the people themselves, he said, but the doubts themselves. The fact that people are doubting him. He’s used to it; he’s gotten it most of his life because of his size.
"I take a mental note of any time someone–not the person, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold grudges–but I take a mental note of any time anyone said something negative about me," Switzer said. "I remember it on Saturdays and every time I’m working, I know what’s been said."
Like most competitors, he has to find a way to have a chip on his shoulder. And like most competitors, he’s driven to prove people wrong. But in reality, like most elite athletes, often the person he’s competing against the hardest is himself.
Fedora thinks that the sky isn’t even a fair limit for Switzer.
"I don’t think there is any limit, actually," Fedora said. "You haven’t even seen him last year him scratch the surface with what he did at the receiver spot. He could break out in that position this year. He really could."