“The first two days of spring you’re in shorts. So I don’t put a whole lot of stock in what we do in shorts. But there was one guy while we were in shorts, it didn’t take but about half a day to figure out he was special,” said first year North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora.
Fedora was talking about his star running back, redshirt sophomore Giovani Bernard. Bernard was indeed special to his head coach this season, compiling 1,228 rushing yards at 6.6 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns. Since the conclusion of the college football season, Bernard has made headlines by declaring himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft, making him the first redshirt sophomore of the class to do so.
He is one of the most impressive talents I’ve watched at the running back position this year, as he has a strong combination of traits that typically lead to success at the professional level. These traits include three vitals at the running back position: balance, agility and vision. And then there’s also acceleration, which is not a requirement but is always welcomed with open arms because there are only so many ball-carriers that possess it along with the vitals. Bernard’s talented traits have enabled him to rush for consecutive 1,200+ yard seasons and at least a dozen touchdowns as well as make many eye-popping plays in other facets of the game.
Balance has been a big credit to the large gains that Bernard has made over the last two years. He has been able to stay on his feet upon receiving contact on numerous occasions and keep his balance as he’s falling to the ground by means of holding himself up one hand in an effort to gain additional yardage. Running backs are always praised for their ability to fall forward whilst going to the ground and he’s shown the ability to do this. Although there are times when he falls to the ground at a swipe of his ankles, which is a product of his small stature (5’10”, 205 lbs.), he has shown on various occasions that he is able to withstand arm tackles and keep his feet churning.
Moreover, his agility is what stands out the most to me when watching him take the field. He is a very dynamic runner in the sense that he is able to administer moves that are considered a high degree of difficulty anywhere on the field, let alone at the line of scrimmage where a defender is closing in at full speed. Bernard has shown that he can dazzle in the tightest areas on the field as witnessed against the Virginia Tech Hokies in Week 6.
Offset to the left of quarterback Bryn Renner as part of the Tarheels’ “11” gun personnel, Bernard was ready to take the handoff on an inside zone play call. His keys consisted of reading the outside hip of the right guard when the ball snapped, which told him that he had to make a quick cutback to his left because of penetration from the defense. He quickly put his left foot into the ground, sunk his hips to get very low and then turned his focus to his left. Once he shifted his focus right, he was dealt with another tough task: an unblocked defender.
The unblocked defender quickly crashed downhill, closing the gap between himself and Bernard. Bernard’s first instinct after squaring his shoulders was to execute a quick spin move to the outside that showed off his brilliant agility. He spun instantly on the defender, who was left grasping only the grass, and then showed off another great move by using a stiff-arm to separate his self from another Hokies defender. Finally, he squared his shoulders and freely turned the corner, turning on the jets and showing off his impressive acceleration.
This ability to make lateral moves in the backfield with quick feet illustrates Bernard’s agility, which is one of his best traits as a ball-carrier along with keeping his feet moving. Both were on display against Duke only two weeks later when he put a smooth move on a Blue Devils defender.
It was a shotgun set again and the Tar Heels had a split-back set with Bernard aligned to the quarterback’s right. He was going to be taking another inside handoff and when he did, he turned his attention to the outside by wrapping the run around the right of the formation. Once he got to the outside, he was met by a Blue Devils cornerback who appeared to be playing with good contain and was constricting the space that Bernard had to work with.
At first, it looked to be a simple and short gain for the UNC runner but proved to be otherwise. He firmly stuck his outside foot into the ground, which forced the cornerback to make a slight move to the outside to protect the edge, and then abruptly sunk his inside foot into the grass and sprang forward. The cornerback attempted to dive forward to stop Bernard but missed completely.
Last but not least, the final vital listed is vision. Every ball-carrier that’s been successful in the NFL has had good vision, whether he’s a front-side runner, a back-side runner or both. Fortunately, Bernard possesses good vision and does a good job of using his head and shoulders to set up running lanes as well as find them. In an early first quarter touchdown against the rival North Carolina State Wolfpack, he exquisitely showed the latter.
It was another handoff from shotgun and he was initially without a running lane to penetrate. The Wolfpack defenders had done a very good job of getting into the backfield, particularly through the left side of the offensive line where Bernard was originally lined up. This forced him to stay patient and seek other alleys. There was a slight crack of light in the near A-gap but not enough to attack it, so he kept his feet moving to his right. At his far right, Bernard saw a running lane developing inside of the right tackle but it wasn’t crystal clear so he made it just that. He planted his outside foot into the ground and slightly shifted his weight outside, forcing the defenders to slightly move wide, and then he planted his inside foot into the ground and shot up the field, hitting the alley for a touchdown.
Giovani Bernard’s combination of balance, agility and vision could potentially take him a long way in the NFL. He has also shown a willingness to pass protect, often taking on and out linebackers at their knees and taking them on directly on occasion. This is an impressive toughness from the ball-carrier considering he doesn’t have the greatest of stature. Despite likely to be deemed “too small” by some personnel men, his height or lack thereof has been an advantage as he has a natural low center of gravity that enables him to make cuts quicker.
Overall, Bernard possesses the talent to be a potential late first-round pick. However, he will need to convince GM’s that he is worth more than typical athletes are at his position and must pass all of his medicals, which will be interesting to see considering he has an ACL injury in his past.