North Carolina Football

UNC's Bernard on NFL role: 'I don't want to come off the field'

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2013 

— Questions have emerged about Giovani Bernard’s durability – about whether he can be an every down running back in the NFL. There is no question, though, about what Bernard envisions for himself once his professional career begins next month after the NFL draft.

Bernard, the former North Carolina running back who amassed more than 1,200 rushing yards in both of his seasons at UNC, didn’t hesitate on Tuesday when asked whether he believed he could be a featured running back in the NFL.

“Heck yeah,” Bernard said, speaking after his workouts at UNC’s annual pro day. “I don’t want to come off the field.”

Bernard often didn’t during the past two seasons with the Tar Heels. After suffering a torn ACL that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season, Bernard in 2011 set UNC’s freshman rushing record with 1,253 yards. He missed two games a season ago because a knee injury, but still ran for 1,228 yards.

Bernard’s production and versatility – he also excelled as a receiver out of the backfield and, last season, on punt returns – have made him the mostly highly-rated running back in his draft class, according to NFL.com. But his smaller stature and history with injuries have led to questions about his durability.

Bernard had at least 23 carries in five of UNC’s games last fall. He had five games with at least 24 carries during his redshirt freshman season in 2011. Larry Fedora spent just one season around Bernard, yet Fedora saw enough to be convinced about Bernard’s ability to lead an NFL offense.

“No doubt in my mind, he can be an every down back,” Fedora said on Monday. “Not only that, he can return punts, he can return kicks. He can stay on the field as long as you want him out there. And so if anybody’s worried about a kid that’s 5-(foot-)8, 205 pounds being an everyday back – I assure you he can do it.”

Bernard performed well in the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, and was a top performer among his peers in both the 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle drills.

Bernard on Monday described the combine as “literally like a meat market,” and he spoke of long days and exhausting interviews with NFL personnel. But, he said, “teams liked what they saw.”

He’ll have to wait until the draft, which begins April 25, to learn exactly how much a team liked him. Though Bernard is considered one of the best running back prospects in his class, if not the best, most draft analysts don’t project a running back being selected in the first round.

Jonathan Cooper, the former UNC offensive guard who was an All-American a season ago, is projected as a first-round pick. Sylvester Williams, the former Tar Heels’ defensive tackle, said on Monday that he’s been told he might go in the first round, as well. Both Cooper and Williams worked out for scouts at UNC’s pro day.

While they did drills with fellow linemen, Bernard worked with a group of skill players. Two years ago, he was still recovering from his ACL injury, wondering what his college career might be like.

Now he’s hoping to prove his potential to scouts and pro personnel who might question his durability.

“Things are going to happen for a reason, things did happen for a reason,” Bernard said. “And now I’m here. Obviously, I never imagined being myself this close (to the draft). Even with injuries or not, I’ve come a long way.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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