CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He was third on the depth chart in training camp, on the good days. He was the little kid from West Virginia, an 18-year-old true freshman whose prospects for the season remained uncertain.
Who could have imagined Ryan Switzer would end the season standing at midfield as his teammates paraded around a bowl trophy, the game's most valuable player and owner of an NCAA record?
"I did," Switzer said. "Yes, sir."
As North Carolina's top playmaker, tight end Eric Ebron, heads for the NFL draft as a possible top-10 pick, his would-be replacement is already stealing his thunder. What the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Switzer lacks in size he makes up in confidence, speed and guile.
Switzer's fifth punt return touchdown of the season - tying an NCAA record he would now own alone if a sixth, against Virginia Tech, hadn't been wiped out by a penalty -assured the Tar Heels of a Belk Bowl victory against Cincinnati, staking out a 26-point lead on the way to a 39-17 win Saturday.
His emergence, from deep on the depth chart to All-American, may be the most memorable aspect of a memorable season that saw the Tar Heels recover from a 1-5 start. The cheerfully cocky freshman has become a threat to score every time he touches the ball, to the point where he's openly surprised teams still punt to him.
"I mean, yeah," Switzer said. "I'm glad they do."
His mere presence occasions a game of punting chess between coaching staffs. Cincinnati tried a rugby punt away from Switzer. North Carolina sent out T.J. Thorpe as a second deep man for the first time this season. The Bearcats tried to disguise their punt team by sending out their quarterback with it, only to call timeout when the Tar Heels didn't bite.
"They were in a bind," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said afterward, from the perspective of a man happy to exploit it.