The South Carolina Gamecocks struggled with kick return defense last year. (Insert obligatory "Darrius Simms" reference here.) However, their punt return defense performed well, holding teams to an average of 8.25 yards (68th in FBS). Part of that was thanks to the now-departed Tyler Hull's performance and his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory.
They'll have their hands full with one of the nation's elite return men on Thursday.
If you haven't heard the name Ryan Switzer, it's time you got to know him. He's a junior wide receiver from Charleston, West Virginia that made 61 catches for 757 yards and a touchdown in 2014. Pretty good, right? Well, that's not all. Switzer, who left George Washington School as their all-time leading rusher and was recruited as an athlete out of high school, was the proud owner of five (yes, you read right, five) punt returns for touchdowns in 2013, tied for the NCAA single-season record. Probably most impressive is that none of those came before the ninth game of the season. Last year, he failed to return a punt for a score (he had one called back against Miami), but the entire country (or at least the ACC) was well aware of his versatility.
It obviously was a little bit of a disappointment for a player who had dreams of becoming the program's first Heisman Trophy winner. This year, as Switzer looks back, he's attempting to tone down the rhetoric and focus on getting better to set his team up for success.
Switzer says he spent part of his offseason watching film of his returns from a season ago and admits he could've taken fewer hits by not returning a majority of the punts he fielded.
"But that's a part of growing; that's a part of maturing," he said. "It's now a part of my game that will help me instead of hurt me."
Although he says his expectations might have discounted the season he ended up having, Switzer continued to develop on offense in 2014. After moving to the position as a freshman, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound receiver led the Tar Heels with 61 catches and 757 yards as a sophomore. And so far in practice, he has continued making strides.
"(Switzer) is starting to understand coverages and starting to understand not just his spot but where he fits and the role," said receivers coach Gunter Brewer. "Sometimes it's not just about that position. It's about how that position might open up someone else and how someone else opens him up."
Look for Switzer to make things happen in both the return game and in the passing game as one of Marquise Williams' favorite targets. Keeping him in check will be key to the Gamecocks leaving Bank of America Stadium with a win in a few days.