CHAPEL HILL — A.J. Blue and Romar Morris are entering the season at North Carolina bonded by the same question how do they fill the void left by Giovani Bernard? so its fitting the running backs are spending preseason camp rooming together.
I see him every day, Morris, a sophomore, said recently of his senior roommate. We hang out every day.
They see in each other in the normal places: Back at the room theyre sharing. On the practice fields. In meeting rooms. Even in the shower. Thats where, Morris said recently, he and Blue had a conversation that answered the question theyve been asked more than any other in recent weeks.
We were in the shower the other day and we were talking about how both of us are going to play no matter what, Morris said, because our offense goes so fast that youre not going to be able to play 10 plays in a row. You might play, probably, five or six plays, and then somebody is going to come get you.
Bernard, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the NFL draft, left UNC as one of the most productive backs in school history. He left a large void actually a small one, UNC coach Larry Fedora said recently, joking about Bernards stature and filling that void has remained a priority for the Tar Heels.
Nearly two weeks into the preseason, however, Fedora appears less concerned with the running back position than he is with others, particularly right tackle, where no one has seized the starting job.
Fedora said he isnt comfortable with the depth at running back, or any other position, but he chafed Monday when a reporter implied that, without Bernard, UNC lacks a running back who can score on any play.
Weve got some guys back there that can take it to the house, now, Fedora said. They can take it the distance. They can go from the 1 to the goal line 99 yards. They can do it, I assure you.
Fedora believes in the potential of Blue and Morris and incoming freshmen T.J. Logan and Khris Francis, a former standout at Durham Hillside High who enrolled at UNC in January. The optimism isnt surprising, given Blue and Morris were productive as reserves a season ago, and that Logan and Francis were both highly recruited.
Even so, UNCs running backs are largely unproven, at least when it comes to being the focal point of an offense. Bernard averaged nearly 200 all-purpose yards per game last season about 75 more than Blue and Morris combined.
These days, Bernard is hoping to solidify his role in the Bengals offense. He made a favorable impression on the debut episode of Hard Knocks, the reality-TV show that chronicles life in training camp in the NFL.
Good football players
Romar and Blue have continued to battle to perception that UNCs backfield is in trouble without Bernard. Both smile politely when asked about Bernards departure, and those questions have come often. Theyre looking forward to answering them with their play.
Are we going to have someone back there as dynamic as (Bernard) was? Fedora said. I dont know. Well see. Well find out. But I do feel like weve got some guys back there that are good football players.
If the season began now, Fedora said, Morris would start for the Tar Heels. He entered the preseason second on the depth chart behind Blue, but minor ailments have kept Blue sidelined during the more physical parts of practice.
Then there are the freshmen, Francis and Logan, who ran for 510 yards and eight touchdowns in Northern Guilfords state championship victory in December. Logan impressed during UNCs first scrimmage Saturday, Fedora said, though Francis has a better grasp of the offense because he enrolled early.
Not that Francis participation in spring practice has made his transition to college much easier than it would have been. He recently described UNCs preseason practices as the hardest thing Ive ever done in my life.
Ive never been this tired after four plays in my life, Francis said. We didnt do huddles in high school, but we never moved at this pace. We thought we were fast, but apparently not.
A high bar
UNCs pace, more than anything, likely will decide how many running backs the Tar Heels use. When he became UNCs running backs coach before last season, Randy Jordan, who played the position at UNC, spoke of the legacy of the position.
Jordan evoked the names of some of the best running backs in school history: Charlie Choo Choo Justice; Amos Lawrence; Natrone Means.
They take pride in that, Jordan said. So they know how (high) the bar is set, and they actually want to go a little bit farther.
Bernard put himself alongside those names with what he accomplished the past two seasons. His departure has created no shortage of questions about how the Tar Heels account for the lost production, but Fedora and his staff arent lacking options.
Either Blue or Morris likely will start, and Francis and Logan are competing for the No. 3 spot, which is deep on the depth chart but still a vital part of Fedoras spread offense.
Morris, the teams No. 3 back last season, ran for nearly 400 yards on 69 carries. As it stands, hed be the starter. Blue, however, is expected to be cleared for full practice in a matter of days.
Im not concerned at all, Blue said of his injury. Whether Im a good or not Im going to go (in the season-opener against South Carolina). But Ill definitely be ready. Ill be ready.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter