CHAPEL HILL — The spread offense, and its arrival at Notre Dame under coach Brian Kelly, is one reason Giovani Bernard rescinded his commitment to the Fighting Irish – and one reason he instead chose North Carolina. Almost three years later, though, the spread has found Bernard here, too.
Bernard a season ago ran for 1,253 yards, a North Carolina freshman record, and he joined “Famous” Amos Lawrence as the program’s only freshman running backs to earn first-team all-ACC honors. But Bernard’s accomplishments came in a traditional pro-style offense, and everything began to change around him last December.
That’s when North Carolina hired Larry Fedora, known for the potent spread offenses he led at Florida, Oklahoma State and Southern Mississippi, where he spent the past four seasons as coach. The spread is known for its reliance on quarterbacks and receivers, but not so much for running backs – at least not in the traditional sense.
That doesn’t necessarily describe Fedora’s version, which is part of the reason he felt no need to soothe potential fears Bernard might have had about how he would fit into it. That, and Fedora said, “I really hadn’t tried to comfort anybody.”
“Gio, first of all, is very intelligent,” Fedora said. “And I think he saw (that) last year we were one of only two teams the last two years to rush for over 200 (yards) and throw for over 250 … and probably the last nine to 10 years, we’ve averaged over 190 yards rushing.
“So I think Gio sees the opportunity to touch the ball more often than he has in the past.”
In Fedora’s four seasons as coach at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles never averaged fewer than 181 yards rushing, and twice averaged at least 200. Before that, Fedora’s offenses at Oklahoma State averaged 201.7 rushing yards per game in his three seasons there.
If Bernard had any doubts about how he might fit into a radically different offense, he won’t admit them.
“The spread opens up more holes,” Bernard said. “It’s more open field, more receivers on the field. So they kind of have to put more (defensive backs in) and not (more) guys in the box.”
‘Definitely feel faster’
At 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, Bernard last season did a lot of his best work in the open field, making defenders miss. Jonathan Cooper, an offensive guard who will enter his senior season as an All-American candidate, said Bernard has the rare combination of patience and vision.
“He’s so good at waiting for plays to develop,” Cooper said. “And when you’re a lineman out in front, and trying to get on a shifty linebacker, the thing you hate is for your running back to make a decision too early and then the linebacker can avoid you and just get to the running back.
“What Gio will do is set you up. He’ll get on your outside edge and as soon as he sees the linebacker commit to that, he’ll just cut off of you and set you up for a great block. So that’s one of the things I love.”
Bernard wanted to add speed, the foundation of Fedora’s offensive philosophy. So at the start of North Carolina’s offseason conditioning program, Bernard approached Lou Hernandez, the Heels’ first-year strength and conditioning coach.
Bernard had a simple request: Make me faster.
“I said my area that I really want to work on is that straight-line speed,” Bernard said. “And just show all the doubters out there that I can take it 90 yards if I needed to.”
If what Bernard has done in the preseason is any indication, his offseason regimen produced results. He ran for two touchdowns in UNC’s first preseason scrimmage – a performance that quarterback Bryn Renner described as Bernard’s “coming out party” in Fedora’s offense.
Bernard provided a simple answer when asked if he felt faster in this faster offense.
“Heck yeah,” he said. “I definitely feel faster. I feel faster and stronger. And I think with the strength comes the speed – the explosiveness.”
In memory of mom
Bernard’s unexpected adaptation to a new offense represents another personal challenge – and one that’s not likely to be as difficult as others he endured at a younger age.
After arriving at UNC in 2010 as one of the nation’s top recruits, Bernard suffered a torn ACL on the third day of preseason practice and sat out the rest of the season.
Much worse, when he was 10, he lost his mother to cancer.
“She’s my inspiration to come out here every day and work hard,” Bernard said after a recent practice. “And I know she’s looking down on me, smiling.”
Bernard credits a lot of his success to his older brother, Yvenson Bernard, whose 3,862 yards rushing rank second in Oregon State history. Giovani – known to friends and teammates simply as Gio – describes Yvenson as “my role model” and said Yvenson “shined the light for me on the right path.”
They both have tattoos of their mother’s initials on the inside of their left wrists. On most days they talk at least once, and rarely much about football.
They might share funny stories about their dad, or talk about hobbies or girls or “random stuff that dudes talk about,” said Yvenson, who lives in Oregon and works for Nike.
After Fedora came to UNC, though, Gio called his brother to talk about football, about being part of a spread offense.
Yvenson Bernard remembers the conversation he shared with Gio after that.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, man – no,’ talking about that kind of offense,” Yvenson said. “But I think with the success that the spread has had in college football the last three or four years, I think he was like, ‘well shoot, this might not be bad after all.’ ”
After his final season at Oregon State in 2007, Yvenson spent some time in the NFL with St. Louis and Seattle, and then wound up in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They ran a spread offense, too, and Yvenson had his doubts at first.
“Before I knew it,” he said, “I started liking the offense, too. And I told my little brother, ‘You’re going to really like it. It opens up a lot of opportunities for you.’ ”
Years after turning down a chance to play in a similar offense, the younger Bernard is anticipating the opportunities he hopes it presents.