Gio Bernard knew his football life would change after he turned a routine tailback sweep into a 60-yard touchdown early in North Carolina's second game.
"It changed some right after that play, really," the redshirt freshman said shortly after a 24-22 win over Rutgers on Sept. 10.
On 15 other rushes against a suddenly alert Rutgers defense, Bernard was limited to nine harmless yards.
"I've got to get prepared better for defenses looking for me," he said. "I want to help us break big plays, but I want to be more consistent, too."
In three games since - wins over Virginia and ECU and a loss to Georgia Tech - the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Floridian has been consistent enough to emerge as one of the hottest rushers in the NCAA.
Entering Saturday's game against Louisville (noon, Kenan Stadium), Bernard is averaging almost 110 yards per game and has scored seven touchdowns. In the ACC, only Virginia Tech junior David Wilson and Miami sophomore Lamar Miller are averaging more rushing yardage per game.
Bernard also has 16 pass receptions - second on the team to wide-out Dwight Jones - for another 108 yards.
At this rate, Bernard will become Carolina's first 1,000-yard rusher since Jonathan Linton gained 1,004 yards in 1997. Bernard is on pace to gain 1,320 yards rushing. The school single-season record is Mike Voight's 1,407 in 1976, when the regular season was 11 games.
Unfailingly modest, Bernard attributes all of his success to blockers. Well that, and his lack of height.
"I don't think the defensive players can see me sometimes," he said before Tuesday's practice.
"I'm so short I'm kind of hidden from them. But I really can't take the credit for it, because the O-line has done all of the work. They're so huge you can't even see me in the huddle around those guys. I try to run low to the ground to take advantage of it more."
After not starting the opening game against James Madison, Bernard probably rates as the most popular player on the team. He denies that, of course.
"I'm the same Gio I was last year when I was on crutches [knee surgery] going to classes and walking around," he said. "I haven't changed at all ... not everything is about football. "
But Bernard has changed almost everything about UNC football this season. A year after the team suffered one injury after another at running back, Bernard is providing the Tar Heels with the kind of robust rushing that once led many opposing ACC coaches to call UNC "Tailback U." That was an era when Voight, Don McCauley, Boom Boom Betterson, Amos Lawrence, Kelvin Bryant, Natrone Means, Ethan Horton and Leon Johnson were more important to the offenses than quarterbacks.
Bernard is still finding out about his predecessors.
"I'm learning those guys. I see their names up in the stadium and I know they're important," he said. "To me, though, it's just a blessing to be back out here and playing again."
The knee injury in mid-August of 2010 was a difficult time for Bernard. Having lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, Bernard found himself far from home and without a strong support system.
"I got down and depressed a few times, but I think maybe it was good for me in a way," he said.
"No one really saw me as a football player on campus. I was just this short freshman guy with some sort of leg injury who had a hard time moving around on crutches. I was able to get used to school and the campus life more than I might have otherwise. I was able to really learn more about why I liked UNC so much in recruiting.
"It definitely made me appreciate the opportunity just to be out here playing and enjoying the game."
Bernard is making up for lost time, and doing so at a near record-setting pace.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8946