Midway through the ACC football season, there’s not a clear frontrunner for the league player of the year award.
That probably would not be the case if North Carolina running back Gio Bernard could have stayed healthy in early September.
Having missed two important games – Tar Heel losses at Wake Forest and Louisville – Bernard doesn’t show up among league statistical leaders.
But if the redshirt sophomore can stay in the lineup for the final six games, he will have played in enough games to be included in the official stats.
There’s no way to predict how much, if any, the missed early games will impact Bernard’s voting support. But if he can continue to perform the way has, Bernard could become the first North Carolina offensive player since Mike Voight in 1976 to be conference player of the year. Defender Lawrence Taylor won in 1980.
For all of its rushing success over the years, UNC has had only two primary ball carriers win the award. Both won it twice: Voight, who died of a heart attack in late May, won in 1975 and ’76, and Don McCauley in 1969 and ’70. North Carolina’s only other winner was quarterback Danny Talbott in 1965.
In the four games he has played – wins over Elon, ECU, Idaho and Virginia Tech – Bernard has rushed for an average of 118.8 yards, caught 15 passes for 122 yards, returned nine punts for an average of 16.6 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns.
Elon and Idaho were badly outmatched, which helped Bernard’s numbers. ECU gave up 40 points in a loss to Central Florida, and Virginia Tech’s defense is beginning to look like the school’s weakest since it joined the ACC in 2004.
But Bernard played only for one half against Elon in the opening game and didn’t appear to be 100 percent when he returned against the Pirates in the fourth game. UNC coach Larry Fedora doesn’t discuss injuries per se, but Bernard missed the 2010 season after suffering a knee surgery in preseason drills.
In last week’s 48-34 win over the Hokies, Bernard had a statement game – 262 yards rushing and three receptions.
Among the other players off to impressive individual starts are running backs Andre Ellington of Clemson and Chris Thompson of Florida State, Duke receiver Conner Vernon and a handful of quarterbacks.
In the preseason predictions for player of the year, Bernard landed only one vote, well behind Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins (25 votes), Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas (21), Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel (19) and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. The only other players to land more than one vote were from N.C. State – quarterback Mike Glennon (5) and defensive back David Amerson (3).
Having missed three games, Watkins likely is out of the running. Thomas and Manuel have had some big games but have also been inconsistent. Boyd has thrown for 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The North Carolina schools are overdue to produce a top-player winner. The last was Wake Forest running back Chris Barclay in 2005, two seasons after N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers won the award.