CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Giovani Bernard isn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy in December, but finding a better and more thrilling player anywhere in the nation might be akin to that whole needle-in-a-haystack deal.
Bernard is that good, and he’s that underrated.
Look no further than North Carolina’s 43-35 victory over NC State on Saturday in which Bernard raced 74 yards into the end zone on a punt return for the game-winning points with 13 seconds left as Exhibit A.
“He’s a guy that when a play needs to be made, he wants to be out there,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora, who originally put Roy Smith on the field to return the punt, but changed his mind at the last second and opted for Bernard, who had twisted his ankle earlier in the contest.
“He wants the ball in his hands. I can promise you he was one of those kids that was always wanting to take the last-second shot in the backyard. He’s just one of those guys.”
The Davie, Fla., native did more than deliver that electrifying moment. He finished the contest with 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries and caught eight passes for 95 yards. Eighty-nine of his rushing yards – and 182 all-purpose yards – came in the final quarter and after the injury. Bernard got better as everyone else tired.
And that’s why the Tar Heels (6-3, 3-2 ACC) knew they were always in the game, even after the Wolfpack took a 35-25 lead in the final period.
“We have a not-so-secret weapon anymore, I guess,” cornerback Tre Boston said, chuckling. “When you have a guy like that, you’re never out of a game.”
Bernard’s explosiveness is exemplified by his many long scoring runs. He has six touchdown runs of 48 or more yards from scrimmage to go along with his two punt returns for scores. He has nine other runs of 30 yards or more that didn’t result in touchdowns.
Perhaps his most impressive touchdown run came three weeks ago in a 48-34 beating of usually-stingy Virginia Tech, racing 62 yards for a score on a 4th-and-1.
But the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder is also effective in short yardage situations. He runs low and powerfully near the goal line, as evidenced by his 10 touchdown runs from inside the 5-yard-line in his 20-game career.
Bernard is also a capable receiver. He has 32 receptions for 319 yards and three scores to go with rushing totals of 930 yards and 10 touchdowns on 126 attempts. But keep in mind, Bernard missed two games and carried the ball just nine times in a rout of Elon and twice in a dismantling of Idaho. He had just 29 attempts through North Carolina’s first four contests.
A year ago, Bernard racked up 1,253 yards on the ground and caught 45 passes for 363 yards, scoring 14 total touchdowns. The No. 2 tailback in Florida as a high school senior, Bernard is no flash in the pan. In fact, he may be more like Tar Heels’ legend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice — a two-time runner-up for the Heisman in 1948 and 1949.
But unlike Justice, Bernard likely won’t ever receive any Heisman hype this season. A redshirt sophomore, who missed his first year at UNC because of an ACL tear suffered on the second day of practice, Bernard likely will head for the NFL in the spring. If he returns, however, Carolina’s opener at South Carolina is a pretty good place to launch a Heisman campaign.