CHAPEL HILL, NC — North Carolina’s long legacy of ball carriers began in the 1920s with Jack “the Battering Ram” Merritt and extended into the 1990s when at one point UNC had produced more 1,000-yard rushers than any other program in the nation.
The newest entry into the rather impressive fraternity is redshirt sophomore Gio Bernard, whose 262 rushing yards vs. Virginia Tech last Saturday was the fifth-most in a single game in Carolina history.
The depth of terrific talent that has carried the ball among the pines is quite considerable. Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy twice in leading UNC to major bowl games in the late 1940s. Don McCauley once held the NCAA record with 1,720 rushing yards in a single season, set in 1970. Like Justice, he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Famous” Amos Lawrence was the second tailback to ever run for 1,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons. Heisman Trophy winner and legendary tailback Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh was the first.
Kelvin Bryant, Ethan Horton, Natrone Means and Leon Johnson are other former Tar Heel tailbacks who blazed past the century mark and built lasting legacies in Chapel Hill. In all, UNC has produced a 1,000-yard runner 25 times, and it’s likely Bernard will increase the number to 26 before this season concludes.
Bernard, who is 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, is a bit like Lawrence, in that he’s not real big, but also like Johnson, as he’s effective catching the ball out of the backfield. He can explode for long runs like Bryant, burst through the line of scrimmage like Curtis Johnson, shake off would-be tacklers or simply juke them out of their cleats like Derrick Fenner and Lawrence, again, respectively.
But Bernard, who ran for 1,253 yards and scored 13 touchdowns last season, is also unique.
“It’s not like I turned the film on and go ‘wow,’ because it’s something I see all the time,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said Monday when asked about his star tailback. “We see it all the time, so it is a ‘wow’ and I guess, for us, it’s kind of old hat. That’s what he does.”
UNC quarterback Bryn Renner is a bit more in awe, and maybe less interested in worrying about inflating the Tampa native’s ego.
“Sometimes, it looks like he may not get around the corner and then all of a sudden he’s racing toward the end zone,” Renner said. “I’ve never seen anyone who can change speeds so fast like he does… He’s just really, really good. He’s a great weapon.”
Bernard knows he’s talented. He understands his innate attributes are important to the Tar Heels. But he also recognizes there are 10 other players on the field, and without the bigs up front, the wide receivers blocking down field, and even Renner, who threw a block during Bernard’s 51-yard jaunt against the Hokies, that it takes all 11 players to excel.
But it takes a gifted one to take it 62 yards to the house, as Bernard did on a 4th-and-1 play on the first snap of the second quarter Saturday.
“I love that feeling, knowing it’s just grass between me and the end zone,” said Bernard, who has six scoring runs of 48 or more yards plus a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown in his brief 17-game career.
Bernard averaged 11.5 yards per carry in the win over Virginia Tech, which is a single-game UNC record. In fact, in one 11-carry stretch in the middle of the contest he averaged nearly 20 yards an attempt.
“He does have power and has great quickness…,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. “(He’s) shifty, nifty, I think a heck of a back… He’s a great running back. When you watch him, it doesn’t take long to see he’s got some special skills.”
And it hasn’t taken Bernard long to climb into the nest of other previous great UNC ball carriers. It’s an impressive group, and the way Bernard is going, many of them and future Tar Heels may one day be compared to him.