CHAPEL HILL — Gio Bernard didnt decide to enter the NFL Draft because he believes hes a sure first-round pick, or because he was afraid of risking injury if he were to return to North Carolina. He decided to enter the draft, he said on Friday, because he felt it time to realize a long-held dream.
I didnt want to base my decision on projections or where I was, said Bernard, a third-year sophomore who had two seasons of eligibility remaining. I think it was more so I want to move on to my next step in life, and I want to fulfill a dream that Ive had since I was a little kid.
He leaves North Carolina as one of the most productive running backs in school history. During his first season, in 2011, Bernard set a UNC freshman record with 1,253 yards rushing. He would have surpassed that mark this season had he not missed two and a half games early in the season because of a knee injury.
As it was, Bernards 1,228 rushing yards led the ACC. He also led the conference in all-purpose yards, punt return average and touchdowns, with 19.
One of those came on a dramatic 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in the final seconds of the Tar Heels 43-35 victory against N.C. State. Bernards return, which is already etched into the lore of the UNC-N.C. State football rivalry, broke a tie and broke the Heels five-game losing streak against N.C. State.
Asked on Friday, though, to name his favorite play, Bernard didnt mention that punt return. He instead thought back to his first two college carries.
It was actually against JMU first carry was 10 yards, the next carry was a touchdown, Bernard said of his collegiate debut against James Madison. And that was really the first time that I felt that emotional after scoring or even running the ball.
And ever since then, its been something that Ive tried to ingrain myself is never take a down for granted. Never take an opportunity for granted.
Bernard felt the chance to enter the draft was too good to pass up. Larry Fedora, the Heels first-year head coach, agreed.
Bernard and Fedora met the morning after UNCs final game of the season, a 45-38 victory against Maryland. In the days and weeks after that meeting, Bernard said Fedora helped him through the decision-making process.
Bernard said he received feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, and Fedora culled information from his own sources. Neither Bernard nor Fedora speculated on where they believe Bernard might be drafted, though Bernard acknowledged he received positive feedback.
Coach Fedora did a great job of kind of giving me some resources giving me some information about my projections and stuff like that, Bernard said. When I saw, I guess, the caliber of player that I was in other peoples eyes, that kind of helped me out and my decision a little bit.
That decision came, Bernard said, a couple nights ago, after he spoke with his older brother. Bernard, who said he plans to return to UNC in 2014 to complete his degree, said he hasnt yet hired an agent, and that he plans to prepare for the draft at the Athletes Performance Institute outside of Los Angeles.
Todd McShay, an NFL Draft analyst for ESPN, said on Friday during an interview that aired on the network that he projects Bernard as a second-round selection. But, McShay said, I think Bernard is right now the No. 1 back in this class.
McShay lauded Bernards versatility, and said that attribute will allow him to contribute right away.
Bernard excelled in a variety of areas for the Tar Heels. In addition to his work as a running back, he caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns, and he averaged 16.4 yards on 16 punt returns.
When Fedora arrived at UNC, he wasnt quite sure what to expect from Bernard. Fedora knew the basics the statistics, what Bernard had accomplished during his freshman season. After a short while, though, Fedora learned all he needed to know. It took just two practices during the spring.
I dont like to make decisions on guys when theyre in shorts, Fedora said. But the first two days of spring ball, we were in shorts and I knew right then. I knew how special he was and what he was going to be in the offense.
Now Bernards departure creates a void in both Fedoras spread offense and on his special teams. The Tar Heels wont be without experience at running back, though.
Romar Morris and A.J. Blue, both of whom combined to run for more than 800 yards this season, will return.
Fedora described Friday as both happy and sad, and said the team will miss Bernards leadership and the example he set.
More than all of it, Fedora said, well miss him as a person, and what he brings to this football team. The drive. The competitiveness. The work ethic we have the opportunity for somebody else to step up and become the guy, and the face of this program.
Bernard had been that for the past two seasons.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter