UNC rusher Bernard ready for NFL Draft

ATLANTA — Growing up in the sports-mad area of south Florida, Giovani Bernard had seemingly attempted every athletic task a vibrant, indefatigable American male could experience.

To his best recollection, though, Bernard had never been asked to do a standing broad jump prior to his preparations for last month’s NFL Combine, the annual league event where scouts and coaches test a prospect’s flexibility and elasticity with a series of mainly non-football activities.

In derisive circles, it’s known as the Underwear Olympics.

“For me, I just tried to blow (every drill) out of the water,” says Bernard, the 21-year-old running back from North Carolina, who bypassed his final two college seasons to join the 2013 draft class. “You want to be successful in everything you do, and the standing broad jump was just one (of the drills). I had never really done it before; but hopefully, I put up a good number.”

Bernard aced the physical components of the combine exam. He had strong marks in the 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds), bench press (19 reps of 225 pounds), three-cone drill (6.91 seconds), vertical jump (33 1/2 inches) and standing broad jump (122 inches). He even took honors with the 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.41) — speed drills that accurately gauge a running back’s shiftiness and explosion.

At 5-foot-8, 202 pounds, Bernard (1,718 total yards, 17 TDs last year) shares similar physical traits with LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and DeAngelo Williams, three of the NFL’s most prominent running backs. According to NFL.com, Bernard currently holds the highest grade (84.0) among the bumper crop of rookie rushers — which includes Eddie Lacy (Alabama), Joseph Randle (Oklahoma State), Stepfan Taylor (Stanford), Montee Ball (Wisconsin) and Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina).

All this begs the question: Why is Bernard nowhere to be found in the first round of just about every mock-draft speculation on the Web?

If size, speed, hands, agility, intelligence and character aren’t viable concerns, then what’s holding the Tar Heel back from a podium encounter with Commissioner Roger Goodell on opening night of the three-day draft (April 25-27)?

In two college seasons (2011-12), Bernard was a remarkably consistent, blue-chip asset for North Carolina, racking up 3,333 total yards (2,971 rushing) and 31 touchdowns. Last year, he tallied at least one TD in all 10 games (missed two to injury) and a minimum of 103 total yards in every outing.

For good measure, Bernard caught at least four balls or notched one TD reception eight times in 2012.

Digging deeper, during a five-game stretch against Virginia Tech (272 total yards, one TD), Miami (213 yards, two TDs), Duke (203 yards, two TDs), North Carolina State (230 yards, two TDs) and Georgia Tech (170 yards, two TDs), Bernard absurdly averaged 218 yards and 1.9 touchdowns against quality ACC competition.

“There will be some games, when your confidence level is so high, you just want the ball (as much as possible),” said Bernard, during a break from taping “The Panel,” a pre-draft special on Fox Sports South. (Bernard’s episode debuts on March 19.)

Whether or not Bernard gets taken by a club desperate for a franchise back — or one promoting a time-share scenario with rushers — remains to be seen. But he’s not one to worry about things out of his control.

“Playing in the NFL is just so huge, you (sometimes) can’t wrap your head around it. I wanted success in middle school, high school and Little League football,” said Bernard, who originally committed to Notre Dame three years ago, before joining (former head coach) Butch Davis at Chapel Hill. “I wanted to go to a great college, a great place for academics and be one of the better players to come out for the draft. … Now, I’m almost there. I’m almost at my dream.”

When pressed to reveal his favorite NFL team or preferred destination on draft day, Bernard stealthily avoids giving definitive answers. Instead, he’s more apt to repeat two familiar refrains: He’s “blessed” to be a part of the whole draft process … and he’s “starving for success” at the next level.

“I want to be one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game.”

Dorsey Levens, an NFL running back for 11 seasons (1994-2004 — Packers, Giants, Eagles) and current analyst for “The Panel,” understands the McCoy and DeAngelo Williams comparisons when discussing Bernard. But he likens the Tar Heels star to a memorable Hall of Famer.

“(Bernard) kind of reminds me of a poor man’s Barry Sanders. He fits that Barry Sanders mold,” says Levens, who out-rushed Sanders by four yards in Green Bay’s 16-12 win over Detroit during the 1994 NFL playoffs.

He added: “I recognize talent when I see it, and he’s small, but (Bernard) has 90 percent of what you’re looking for. He’s strong, explosive, has great vision, elusive, great balance … it’s hard to bring someone down that has a low center of gravity and great balance. It’s an uphill battle (to tackle him).”

If Bernard turns out to be a reasonable facsimile of Sanders (15,269 rushing yards, 99 TDs), he’ll undoubtedly be swamped by random people on the street — namely fantasy owners in need of 16 points (the equivalent of 100 total yards/one TD) on random Sundays.

For a precocious, yet humble person like Bernard, who only has 1,300 Tweets on his official Twitter account, that first intense wave of fantasy, uh, fanaticism might be an eye-opening experience.

“It’s kind of wild. I’ve never been the guy with a lot of time to look at fantasy. Some of my friends are doing it,” says Bernard. “It’d be a blessing for people to stop me and say, ‘Oh, I have you on my fantasy team.’ (It might) be a little surreal at times, but it’s all a blessing.”