CHAPEL HILL — Despite his place as one of the most productive players in the country, Giovani Bernard continues to thrive amid obscurity.
Not that he has lacked for local attention. The last time he was on the field during a game, the North Carolina sophomore returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown during the final seconds of the 43-35 victory against N.C. State.
“It’s been wild, just having random people come up to me, congratulating me,” Bernard said Monday. “But for me, it’s kind of like you hit a home run (one) at-bat, and you want to get up your next at-bat.”
The question now is how many at-bats, to use Bernard’s term, he has left at North Carolina. A third-year sophomore, he will be eligible after this season to enter the NFL draft.
The possibility of turning pro likely would be a tempting one for Bernard, who ranks third nationally with an average of 214 all-purpose yards per game. Though he missed two games this season because of injury, Bernard leads the ACC in rushing with 930 yards – 150 more than Clemson’s Andre Ellington, who is second.
Yet despite his production, which might make him an alluring professional prospect, Bernard said Monday he is avoiding thoughts about his future and the NFL.
“For me, I don’t think about it at all, honestly,” he said. “But it’s something that I’ll obviously think about at the end of the season. But right now, we’ve still got three more games left – we’ve still got three games (and) I want to prove to everybody what I can do.”
Bernard has done a good job of that this season, at least to those who have been paying attention. He is the only player in the country who has multiple touchdowns rushing, receiving and on special teams. His average of 132.9 rushing yards per game ranks fifth nationally.
Yet for all of his accomplishments and highlights, Bernard has remained somewhat of an unknown – at least nationally. He received plenty of congratulations and kind words on campus during the days after his game-winning punt return against the Wolfpack, but the attention that surrounds him hasn’t gone beyond Chapel Hill.
“That’s just how life goes,” Bernard said. “I mean, you just have to make some noise.”
The punt return did that, to some degree. When describing the moment Monday, Larry Fedora, North Carolina’s first-year coach, said plays like that will make observers “know who you are.”
“You’re going to make that da-da da, da-da da,” Fedora said, singing the theme to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” “You’re going to be on there. And you happen to be (the) No. 1 (highlight), so everybody in the country sees it.”
While thinking about the potential of entering the NFL draft – or trying not to think about it, at least for now – Bernard said he wouldn’t weigh the risk of injury. He suffered a torn ACL not long after arriving at UNC, and that injury kept him on the sideline during his first fall on campus.
This season, he missed the Tar Heels’ defeats at Wake Forest and Louisville while recovering from a knee injury. Bernard is familiar with the gruesome knee injury South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore recently endured.
“I couldn’t watch it,” Bernard said. “As a person that suffered an ACL injury, I don’t like watching knees buckle down or whatever it may be. But my prayers are definitely with him. As a running back, you never know when your last play is. As a football player, you never really know when your last play is.
“You can’t think about things like that.”
Fedora, though, has thought about why Bernard hasn’t received the attention he might deserve. Most of Bernard’s success, Fedora said, has come after the first month of the season. Had it happened earlier, perhaps Bernard’s accomplishments would be more magnified.
“I can promise you that his name will be in all (discussions about postseason awards) next year, I can assure you of that,” Fedora said.
Asked if that meant he believed Bernard would be returning, Fedora didn’t hesitate.
“Right now I am, yeah,” he said. “Why would I think any differently?”