CHAPEL HILL – Gio Bernard is back to running for big yardage after his early-season injury, and that’s making North Carolina’s offense hard to stop.
Bernard missed nearly three full games with a knee injury in the opener, but the redshirt sophomore has run for more than 400 yards in the past two games and is on pace for a second straight 1,000-yard season. And the Tar Heels (5-2, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are unbeaten when Bernard is in the lineup this season heading into Saturday’s trip to Duke (5-2, 2-1).
“Numbers are one thing, being able to play and being able to win is another thing,” Bernard said. “I think coach (Larry) Fedora has stressed that winning is what this program is about. That’s what I want to do. The numbers are just another thing.”
Regardless of how Bernard tried to downplay them, the numbers are proving just how vital he is to the Tar Heels.
He ran for a career-high 262 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in the win against Virginia Tech, then ran for 177 yards and two scores at Miami last weekend in his return to his home state.
Bernard is averaging roughly 130 yards rushing per game, seventh nationally. He also has scored 10 touchdowns this year – second in the ACC – despite playing just five games.
“Playmakers make plays all the time,” Fedora said. “They don’t do it sporadically. They don’t have a game where they have a great game then they disappear for three weeks, then they have a good game and then they disappear. ... When he’s on the field, there’s going to be some things happening.”
Last season, he ran for more than 1,200 yards to become the first UNC player to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Mack Brown’s final season here in 1997.
He got off to a great start against Elon, rushing for 93 yards and scoring touchdowns on a rush, reception and a punt return by the 12-minute mark of the second quarter. But he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of that game as well as the losses at Wake Forest and Louisville – which came by a combined six points – before scoring two touchdowns in his return against East Carolina.
He scored touchdowns on his only two carries in the 66-0 win against Idaho, setting up his huge performances against the Hokies and Hurricanes.
Bernard has run for 652 yards and is averaging 8.3 yards per carry this season.
“The biggest thing is he’s really stepped into the role of being a leader,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “He talks to guys and communication is a big thing. But I think the one thing that kind of goes unnoticed is our offensive line play. ... I’ve barely gotten touched the whole season and barely got touched on Saturday.”
Bernard is 95 yards shy of reaching 2,000 yards rushing for his career, which would move him into 11th place in school history.
“I wanted to help my team out but I couldn’t,” Bernard said of his injury. “When you’re not able to help your team, it hurts. Once I came back, I wanted to prove to everybody that I’m OK and I’m ready to go.”