UNC’s Bernard follows dream to NFL
N.C. State fans don’t have to worry about Giovani Bernard breaking their hearts with another game-changing punt return for a touchdown.
Bernard, North Carolina’s redshirt sophomore running back whose 74-yard run against the Wolfpack on Oct. 27 gave the Tar Heels a 43-35 victory, declared his intention to enter the NFL draft on Friday.
Bernard (5-10, 205) and UNC coach Larry Fedora talked about the process the third-team All-American used in making his decision.
“I didn’t want to base my projections on where I was (in mock drafts),” Bernard said. “I think it was moreso that I wanted to move on to the next step in life and fulfill a dream.
“When it comes down to it, the decision was mine. I don’t know too much about the other running backs who have declared. ... It’s what I feel about the situation, what I feel about my abilities.”
Fedora, whose first UNC team finished 8-4 but could not participate in postseason games because of NCAA sanctions, said he talked to Bernard after the season-ending 45-38 win over Maryland on Nov. 24 and helped gather information from NFL scouts and other sources.
“I got a lot of projections,” Fedora said. “As I started feeding those to Gio, I found out, in talking to him, that’s not really what it’s about for him. It was about the opportunity to fulfill a dream. When he made those comments to me, then I had a (feeling) that I thought he was going.
“I don’t want to say it’s not about money, because it’s a business and he’s going to be making a living and that plays a part in it. But I think for him, it’s more about fulfilling a dream. ... I dreamed about it as a kid. I didn’t go very far, but he has this opportunity and I’m ready to live through him in this opportunity.”
Bernard led the ACC in rushing with 1,228 yards despite missing more that two games with a knee injury early in the season. And even though he redshirted his true freshman year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during preseason practice, he said that had little to do with his decision.
“It didn’t really weigh that much,” Bernard said. “As a football player, you take risks. Playing the game is a risk in itself. Those things happen. ... Those are things that you can’t really think about it. You just have to go into it with an open mind and just play the game.”
That’s the approach Fedora took in the spring of 2012 when he first guided the Tar Heels.
“I just knew that I was excited about the opportunity of having a player of his caliber,” Fedora said of Bernard. “At the time, I really didn’t know how good Gio was because I hadn’t seen him on film; I hadn’t watched him. ...
“I don’t like to make decisions on guys when they’re in shorts. But in the first two days of spring ball, we were in shorts and I knew right then how special he was and what he was going to be in the offense. From that point on, it was ‘OK, what do we need to do to make sure we get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways?’”
Bernard finished the season with an ACC-leading 19 touchdowns — 12 rushing, five receiving and a pair on punt returns. He set a new school record with an average of 198.1 all-purpose yards and finishes his career with 2,481 yards rushing, which stands 10th on the UNC list despite playing just two seasons.
“As a football player, you don’t want to categorize yourself as a certain type of player,” Bernard said. “For me, I just want to be on the field, helping in (any) situations.”
And he plans to finish his degree requirements in 2014.
“That’s one of my biggest priorities,” Bernard said. “You come to this school to get a degree; you don’t come just to play football. We’re student-athletes here; student definitely comes first.”
Bernard’s absence in those games gave junior A.J. Blue and redshirt freshman Romar Morris an opportunity to show what they can do, leaving Fedora optimistic about the future.
“There were two and half games there at the beginning of the season where Gio wasn’t able to go, so you got to see Romar and Blue for an extended period of time,” Fedora said. “So they’ve gotten some really good experience, some meaningful experience in games.
“You’ve got kind of a thunder and lightning kind of look, with Romar with his speed and quickness and Blue with the big, bruising kind of guy who runs extremely hard. ... I’ve not talked to them, but I’ll bet you (that) both of them are excited about the opportunity. Now they get to try to create some memories for Tar Heel fans.”
As for Bernard’s touchdown run that ended UNC’s five-game losing streak against the rival Wolfpack, he doesn’t even count that in the top two plays of his college career.
“Probably my first two plays here at the University of North Carolina,” Bernard said when asked about memorable moments. “Against JMU, my first carry was 10 yards, the next play was a touchdown. That was really the first time I felt that emotional after scoring.”