CHAPEL HILL — The victorious punt return in the final seconds against N.C. State might be what people remember most about Giovani Bernard, the former North Carolina running back now in the NFL. Bernard, though, routinely made long, game-changing plays – the kind that have become rare in his absence from the Tar Heels’ running game.
“It kind of hurts me a little bit,” A.J. Blue, one of the running backs charged with filling Bernard’s void, said this week. “You know, I’m not trying to compare myself to him, but I do consider myself as a good back. And around this time (last season) Gio probably had three or four runs probably over 40 yards by now.”
Through UNC’s first two games, Blue, a fifth-year senior, has gained more than 10 yards on only one of his carries. Romar Morris, a sophomore who began the season atop the depth chart at tailback, has three carries of more than 10 yards – one of them a 26-yard touchdown run in the victory Saturday against Middle Tennessee State.
After struggling against South Carolina in the season opener, the UNC offense gained more than 500 yards against the Blue Raiders. Even so, coach Larry Fedora expressed disappointment with the lack of production from the running game, which generated just 134 yards and averaged 3.3 yards per carry.
Fedora and his staff entered the first of the team’s two bye weeks with hope of diagnosing the problems in the ground game and fixing them. Some of them, offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said, are more obvious than others. For some of the woes, time might be the only solution.
In addition to the loss of Bernard, UNC lost three-fifths of its offensive line from a season ago. Blue and Morris, though experienced, had never been featured parts of a college offense. To make matters more difficult, UNC started two offensive linemen who played their first college game in the season opener against South Carolina.
“I think we just have some growing pains, really, to get those four parts to work together,” Anderson said of the running back and three new starting linemen. “And we’re just (off on) steps, alignment, placement, reads – you name it. Things that we’re really going back and working (on) this week and next week.”
During his time in Chapel Hill, Bernard excelled at letting holes develop before bursting through them on his way to large gains. He made evading tacklers look easy, in part because he was so adept at setting up blockers and making the correct reads.
That has proven especially difficult for Blue, Morris and Khris Francis, a freshman from Durham who gained 42 yards on 10 carries Saturday. UNC’s running backs haven’t necessarily played poorly. They all averaged more than 4 yards per carry Saturday. Outside of Morris’ 26-yard touchdown, though, the gains usually came in small chunks.
“For the run game, just the reads (need to improve),” Blue said. “We’ve got to learn how to train our eyes back there, and that goes back to reading the defensive schemes and just adjusting off how the (defensive) line shifts and how they stunt and all that kind of stuff.”
When Fedora arrived at UNC two years ago with his up-tempo spread offense, he bristled at the notion that the Tar Heels would rely especially on the passing game. He preached the importance of balance. The Tar Heels mostly achieved his desired balance a season ago.
Yet at least for now, UNC might remain more one-dimensional on offense than it would prefer. Blue attributed the relative struggles of the running game to the calendar, and said simply “it’s early.”
Anderson, meanwhile, is still adapting to calling plays without Bernard, who had six carries of at least 40 yards last season. Only two running backs in the nation had more.
“You love playing with guys like that,” senior tackle James Hurst said. “Gio makes you look good. He’s just a great player, and so are our running backs now.
“But it’s just so different when those two guys are full-time guys and then we’ve got three new guys on the line that are full-time guys. So everyone’s kind of got to find their identity.”
Entering the season, Fedora expected long, game-changing plays to remain a part of the identity of his team’s running game. He dismissed the notion that with the absence of Bernard, those kinds of plays would be lost. Two games into a long season, though, the Tar Heels are searching for an aspect of their offense that has gone missing.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter