Belk Bowl: UNC FR ties NCAA punt return record — here’s all of them

Freshman Ryan Switzer has been a special teams genius for North Carolina in 2013.

Chuck Burton/AP

Ryan Switzer is a 5-foot-10, 175-poound freshman receiver from West Virginia.

By measurement, he’s certainly not threatening. Standing among the trees of hefty lineman and hulking linebackers and most everyone else on a football field, Switzer will not intimidate. And, no, his serious-face roster picture on North Carolina’s website doesn’t help much.

But when Switzer chose the Tar Heels over Florida State, Arizona, Penn State and others, even they couldn’t have realized the kind of bottle rocket they would soon be getting in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina beat Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, 39-17, on Saturday and Switzer was the star again, taking an 86-yard punt back to the house, which tied the NCAA single-season punt return TD record with five. He also had three catches for 22 yards.

Switzer wraps up his freshman season with those five punt return TDs and 32 receptions for 341 yards and three TDs. Before we get to a few thoughts on junior tight end Eric Ebron, who played his last game for UNC and has a bright NFL future ahead of him, here’s video of every Switzer punt return TD from this season.

No. 1: Nov. 9 vs. Virginia

No. 2: Nov. 16 vs. Pitt (first half)

No. 3: Nov. 16 vs. Pitt (second half and game-winner)

No. 4: Nov. 30 vs. Ole Dominion

No. 5: Dec. 28 vs. Cincinnati (h/t SBNation for GIF)

Ebron leaves Chapel Hill to join the elite NFL tight end club

Because of a few high-profile cases and the overall shift to pass-heavy pro offenses, the idea of athletic, play-making tight ends is more prevalent than ever. I do think, though, it’s been a bit overplayed.

If you go back through the last handful of seasons and look at the numbers, there aren’t actually as many elite tight ends as you would expect. Last season, Jason Witten’s ranked fifth in receiving with 110 catches, while Tony Gonzalez ranked ninth with 93 catches and Jimmy Graham ranked 13th with 85.

In 2011, Graham ranked third among all pro pass-catchers with 99 grabs, while Rob Gronkowski ranked fifth (90), Brandon Pettigrew ranked eighth (83), Gonzalez ranked 12th (80) and Aaron Hernandez ranked 15th (79).

The ranks only dwindle from there the further back we go, because, again, the idea of playmaking tight ends is something of a contemporary concept. That’s not to say it’s totally new, no. But it seems to me that there’s a very thin elite layer in the most recent generation of tight ends – Gonzalez, Witten and perhaps Antonio Gates – and then a wide group of quality tight ends who produced some good years without moving into the Tier 1 group.

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That group would include, among others: Dallas Clark, Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow and Chris Cooley. But look at those names again and survey the landscape.

Gonzalez is retiring. Gates has had a resurgent season after looking rather medium-well and maybe has another productive season or two. Hernandez is unlikely to ever play football again since he’s currently awaiting his fate on murder charges. After multiple back and arm surgeries, Gronkowski recently blew up his ACL and faces another tough recovery road; who knows if he’ll ever again be the brilliant weapon he briefly was for Tom Brady.

And so while Graham has proven some consistency and others show potential of reaching an elite level – Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Brandon Myers – that Tier 1 of tight ends gets diluted rather quickly. Plenty of good-to-serviceable tight ends out there, but not many of the impact types.

This is why Eric Ebron announced before Senior Day at North Carolina that he was forgoing his final season and turning pro.

He’s 6-4, 245 pounds and has the length and hands to catch nearly anything in his vicinity. He runs well for his position, leaps, can split out wide and run quality routes, is too strong for corners and too quick for linebackers. He’s matchup hell for most defenses and does things those in the Tier 1 TE group can do.

Take a couple minutes to see for yourself:

Ebron will be a first-round pick in May and could even go in the top 10-15 picks.

He’s a brilliant offensive player, whose seven catches for 78 yards against Cincinnati go mostly unnoticed because of Switzer’s punt return magic, yes, but most because Ebron has made such performances feel routine.

As a North Carolina alum, I’ve enjoyed watching him blossom in Chapel Hill. And when you have a talent like that on your college football team of choice, part of you is happy to see him go, because there’s no other choice here to make.

The Belk Bowl, and UNC’s 2013 season, is over. Now the NFL calls, and the NFL is where Ebron belongs.

Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at tmitrosilis@gmail.com.