UNC running backs look to fill a void

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2013 

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UNC tailback A.J. Blue works on his footwork during practice on Wednesday 10, 2013 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels are preparing for their annual Spring Football game on Saturday April 13, 2013.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Saturday’s UNC spring game schedule 11 a.m.

    Bell Tower Park opens

    Food vendors

    Interactive games for kids, including inflatables and face painting

    Photos with the new UNC football uniforms, mascot Rameses and the UNC cheerleaders

    Official UNC merchandise available at tents

    Live music on stage with GrooveTown and the UNC Marching Tar Heels

    12:45 p.m.

    Autograph session with UNC football players, autographs cards will be given to the first 3,000 fans

    3 p.m.

    Spring game kickoff

    1st quarter: Presentation of award to Gio Bernard

    3rd quarter: Recognition of Jeff Saturday

    Source: North Carolina

— By A.J. Blue’s reckoning, he and Romar Morris have spent “days and days” talking about how to fill the void left behind by the departure of Giovani Bernard, the former North Carolina running back who decided to leave school to begin a professional career after averaging nearly 200 all-purpose yards per game last season.

By the end of those conversations, it became clearer that filling that void might not be possible.

“We’re really not trying to fill the void of Gio,” said Blue, the Tar Heels’ rising senior running back. “Because (not) many people can do that. We’re not lowering our expectations by any means, but we’re not trying to fill Gio’s void. We’re trying to do what we can do to help the team win.”

Compensating for the loss of Bernard, who ran for more than 1,200 yards in both of his seasons at North Carolina, has perhaps been the most obvious storyline for the Tar Heels during their spring practice period. Both Blue and Morris, a rising sophomore running back, will offer a look at the new-look backfield Saturday during North Carolina’s spring game.

It was in this game a season ago when Morris, then a mostly-unknown redshirt freshman, began to show glimpses of his potential. He then averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the fall while serving as a worthy backup to Bernard, who ran for 1,228 yards.

On paper, the loss of Bernard appears daunting for UNC. He accounted for more than 71 percent of the Tar Heels’ rushing yards last season, and caught 47 passes for 490 yards. In addition to his versatile role in the offense, he averaged 16.3 yards on his 16 punt returns and he took two back for touchdowns – one that gave the Tar Heels the winning points in the final seconds of a dramatic victory against N.C. State.

Bernard’s absence has been obvious enough for the Heels during the past few weeks of spring practice, but Morris said he and his teammates have tried to block it out.

“He left and everything,” Morris said, “but we’re just trying to not miss a beat at all – trying to keep everything the same way it was, trying to play as if Gio was never here.”

Bernard will be there at Kenan Stadium today, on hand in part to watch his old team partake in its annual spring game, but also to receive an award. During the first quarter, Bernard will be honored by the College Football Performance Awards as the top punt returner in the country for the 2012 season.

During the scrimmage, meanwhile, those he left behind will attempt to continue to fill Bernard’s sizeable void. Both Blue and Morris are contrasting runners with differing physiques. Blue, who ran for 433 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago, is the more physical, bruising back. Morris is faster and more adept at slipping through small spaces.

Both now have the same chance: to seize a starting role in coach Larry Fedora’s high-scoring spread offense.

“Oh, man,” Blue said with a smile. “It’s a huge opportunity.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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