Return Game Rundown

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Gio Bernard's name at the top of the punt return depth chart raised eyebrows earlier this week, but Larry Fedora emphasized the importance of taking care of the ball in discussing that decision with reporters on Friday.

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Bernard's ability with the ball in his hands is obvious to anyone that watched the red-shirt sophomore running back churn out 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011.

"He's natural," Fedora said. "He catches the ball very naturally and you want a guy back there that you're not worried about whether he's going to catch it or not. He's been in the battle before. If you put the ball in his hands, he can make some plays now.

"We're going to create some seams and it should be a lot of fun to see what he does with it."

The message board lit up after the news broke on Wednesday, however, due to the injury potential associated with the return game.

UNC fans vividly remember former wide receiver Brandon Tate tearing his ACL on a punt return against Notre Dame in 2008. Tate was a frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year honors at the time.

"You can't worry about that – you can't worry about injuries on any play," Fedora said. "Someone might step off the bus and twist their ankle. If I had enough depth to worry about things like that, I would, but I don't, so we've got to put our players on the field."

Sophomores Romar Morris and Sean Tapley are currently slated to start in the kick returner positions.

"Every time we've given them an opportunity to make a play, they've made plays," Fedora said.

Fedora's emphasis in the return game is clear – take care of the ball first, make plays second.

"All I'm looking for back there again is that we possess the ball at the end of the play," he said. "And if its in [the opponent's] end zone, that'd be great. That will be super. But the main thing is that we know we have to possess the ball at the end of the play, including Gio back there on punt returns. That's a big deal.

"Now we're trying to make game-changing plays, but at the same time, no matter what, at the end of the play we've got to have the ball."

** After a less-than-stellar effort on Wednesday, the Tar Heels responded with back-to-back quality practices on Thursday and Friday. While UNC turned the bulk of its attention to Elon on Thursday, the learning curve is still in place.

"You're also teaching a scout team how we're going to do things and that's the thing that I have to remember every day," Fedora said. "Everything we do is brand new for somebody. So we put a scout team out there and they don't know how exactly we want it done. That took a day to get straight. It was much better the last two days. Those guys have done a good job and I think our team has done a much better job focusing on our opponent."

** North Carolina will hold its third and final scrimmage of the preseason on Saturday, albeit with a different intent than the previous two. The coaching staff has designed a live mock game, complete with pregame meal, Old Well Walk, pregame warmups, halftime activities and sideline organization.

The extreme detail goes so far as to instruct the players what to do when coming off the field following a series.

"Do you stand there? Do you go get a drink? Do you go to the bench? Everything has to be taught. Everything has to be in detail so that our guys will understand on Sept. 1 and they're not looking around wondering, ‘What do I do?'"

But while last Saturday's scrimmage consisted of 170 plays, the mock game is scripted at a much more manageable level. Fedora indicated that the first-team offense would get approximately 12-14 repetitions in the first quarter, and the starting defense would see the same number of snaps.

The script is based more on quality than quantity.

"We try to cover every situation," Fedora said. "We try to cover turnovers, we try to cover safeties, kick after safety… So within the flow of this game, over all of the plays we have, we think – and this is built over time – we think we have every situation covered."

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