RB Injuries Piling Up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Less than 10 days into training camp, North Carolina took the practice field on Monday morning with a third-string tailback running with the first unit after being listed as a quarterback just two weeks ago.

The first thing media members noticed during the open segment of practice at Navy Fields was the orange no-contact jerseys being worn by running backs Ryan Houston and Gio Bernard.

Houston, a fifth-year senior out of Charlotte, N.C., has been limited in practice since offseason shoulder surgery in the spring. Former head coach Butch Davis told reporters at the ACC Football Kickoff event last month that Houston should be ready for full contact by Aug. 15, but that deadline brought no change in assessment.

"I feel like I could go right now, but they want to take everything by the book and they want to make sure I can play the first game," Houston said.

Houston led UNC with 713 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2009, but elected to red-shirt last season after being held out of the first five games before ultimately being cleared to play. Working in his fifth season under offensive coordinator John Shoop, there's no doubt that Houston knows his responsibilities on field, but he admitted that it will be a challenge to get back into the physical grind that the game presents after enduring minimal contact dating back to last August.

Bernard joined his veteran teammate in wearing a no-contact jersey after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his left hand while being tackled during Saturday's scrimmage. No surgery is needed, and the red-shirt freshman will have to wear a cast for at least two weeks.

Withers told reporters that Bernard's injury did not make him nervous about the injury bug that's hit his running back corps.

"If we had to play a game, Gio could play in a game," Withers said. "… What it does is give us an opportunity is to work some other guys and get some other guys well."

Making the injury even worse is the fact that Bernard has been making significant strides through the first 10 days of training camp.

"Gio was awesome in the scrimmage," Withers said. "It was great to see him carry the ball in live action and watch him make plays."

There is no current timetable as for when Bernard's hand will be healed, but Withers indicated that the training staff would utilize a protective covering on the cast, if needed.

With the current running back two-deep sidelined, red-shirt sophomore A.J. Blue took snaps with the first-team offense at tailback after playing quarterback for the better part of two years at North Carolina. The Dallas, N.C. product began his career at running back before tearing his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments and his medial collateral ligament in October 2009.

"I've been really impressed with A.J.," Withers said. "A.J. is what I remembered a couple of springs ago when we had him at tailback. He's just learning. When you're a quarterback and you move back to running back, you've got to learn to run with your pad level down and those types of things, but he's been working his tail off and we've been excited."

When asked how his time at quarterback has helped his transition to running back, Blue responded: "Defensive fronts, blitzes and just knowing the first person in the read [and] knowing what read I am."

After discussing the move back to running back throughout the offseason, Blue officially returned to the offensive backfield on the first day of training camp – Aug. 5. Former Tar Heel Hunter Furr's decision to transfer out of the program left a role in the depth chart that made the move critical.

Blue saw action as a true freshman in '09 working out of the Wildcat package, which lined him up at the quarterback position to catch defenses off guard and allow for an extra blocker on running plays. Blue indicated that the offensive installation hasn't progressed enough this August to the point of inserting the Wildcat package – if Shoop even decides to go that route this season.

Blue's backup on Monday was true freshman Travis Riley, who enrolled in January and benefitted by going through spring practice and offseason workouts.

"Travis is one of those guys that gives us a bigger body back there running the ball," Withers said. "He's learning and growing every day."

Houston is the only running back of the quartet with significant experience as Blue ranks second with career totals of 18 carries and 33 rushing yards. But that lack of experience doesn't have Withers overly concerned.

"We practice everything but going to the ground," Withers said. "So they get thudded at practice, they get hit at practice, so ball security is an issue every day they go to practice. They're used to holding and grasping the balls, so I don't think it's an issue once you go in the game."

The good news for North Carolina is that both Houston and Bernard are expected to be ready to play in the season opener against James Madison on Sept. 3.

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