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UNC Football: Reliving Ryan Switzer’s punt return heroics of 2013

In honor of Switzer’s retirement, let’s look back at the incredible stretch he went on in 2013.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Belk Bowl - North Carolina v Cincinnati Photo by Dannie Walls / Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Monday, Ryan Switzer announced his retirement from the NFL after a career that saw him spend time with the Cowboys, Raiders, Steelers, and Browns. Before all that, he was an All-ACC receiver for North Carolina, who rewrote the record book in his time in Chapel Hill. By the time he finished his career at UNC, Switzer held the record for career receiving yards and the record for receptions for both a career, a single season, and a game.

However, all of those are receiving records, and Switzer had another very important aspect to his game. He was also an incredible punt returner, for which he was named an All-American in both 2013 and 2015. For his career, he returned seven punts for touchdown. At the time that was one short of the all-time NCAA record, but it’s now two behind after Washington’s Dante Pettis increased the mark to nine in 2017. However, seven is more than double the next best total in UNC history.

Most of those seven came in one very special season. As a freshman in 2013, Switzer tied the NCAA single season record by returning five punts for touchdowns. Punt returns can be exciting anyway (shoutout to Giovani Bernard), but by the end of the year, you genuinely had to make sure you were keeping all eyes on Switzer when a punt hit the air.

In honor of his retirement, let’s look back at his 2013 season and relive that remarkable run.

Early in the season, you might not have guessed that all the touchdowns were coming. He wasn’t on punt return duty in the season opener. In the eighth games after that, there wasn’t too much doing for him in that area, apart from one 41-yard return he had against East Carolina. As that was happening, UNC slumped to a 1-5 record before picking up much needed wins over Boston College and NC State.

In the ninth game of the season against Virginia, the Heels had opened up a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Late into the second quarter, with the defense having kept UVA out of the endzone again, Switzer went back for a punt. After briefly struggling with the catch, he managed to evade three Virginia defenders converging on him, and did this:

He finished the game with 111 total punt return yards in a 45-14 win and would truly be off to the races after that.

A week later, the Tar Heels were in Pittsburgh. After a hot start, Switzer seemed to put a cap on a big first half, taking a punt back 65 yards to give UNC a 24-3 lead at the half. While Carolina added a field goal as the first points of the second half, Pitt began to fight their way back in the day. The Panthers would score 24 unanswered points, coming all the way back to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter.

After UNC’s offense couldn’t answer, Pitt had a chance to take the lead, but they couldn’t, having a drive stall out deep in their territory with just under five minutes left. Due to their big rally, Pitt hadn’t needed to punt again after Switzer’s touchdown earlier in the game. Maybe if they had and he had pulled off another good return, they would’ve tried to keep it away from him. However, they didn’t and this happened:

That touchdown ended up being the difference as UNC won 31-24.

The next week, Switzer followed that up with another touchdown (and a big receiving day) as UNC crushed Old Dominion, getting bowl eligible after the 1-5 start.

Carolina wouldn’t have far to go for the bowl, as they ended up playing Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. After the Heels built up a big lead in the first half, Switzer put both a cherry on the game and his season early in the third quarter.

For the fifth time of the season, Switzer had taken a punt back to the house, tying the single-season record. He also ended up winning Belk Bowl MVP after finishing with 113 all purpose yards.

It takes just one look at his stats at Carolina to know that Switzer was much more than just punt returns. However, that period in 2013 was one of the most electrifying stretches in recent UNC football history.