Life After Gio

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While Gio Bernard was mulling his decision to declare for the NFL Draft or return for his junior season at North Carolina, Larry Fedora and his coaching staff were already prepared for the departure of one of UNC's most electrifying playmakers in the modern era.

A NCAA mandate requires that college football programs begin spring and fall practice with two days in shorts followed by two days in shoulder pads before dressing out in full gear.

Fedora's not a coach that makes concrete evaluations on players in shorts, but Bernard was an exception last March.

"I knew right then how special he was and what he was going to be in the offense," Fedora told reporters on Friday. "From that point on, it was, ‘Okay, what do we need to do to make sure we get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways?'

"That's when we started talking about making sure he had catches out of the backfield. We moved him out and were going to get the ball to him vertically also because he could catch the ball so well. And that's when you started thinking about kickoff returns and punt returns and how we could utilize him in a lot of different ways."

Those efforts laid the foundation for Bernard to boost his draft stock, despite missing two full games and the second half of another. The red-shirt sophomore ran for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, ranking 11th nationally with 122.8 rushing yards per game and leading the country with a 16.4-yards-per-punt return average.

Bernard's play in spring ball alerted the coaching staff of the possibility that this dynamic running back may only be available to them for one season. That knowledge was particularly valuable on the recruiting trail.

"After spring practice, the UNC coaches had a pretty good idea that Gio was going to leave early," recruiting analyst Don Callahan said. "Thus, with Khris Francis already committed, the coaches decided to make a stronger push for a guy like T.J. Logan, who committed a couple months later.

"Beyond this class, Gio leaving early proves that a quality running back can excel in Fedora's offense and go on to become a major pro prospect. When Fedora arrived, some questioned Gio's role. What Gio did this season puts all those questions to rest."

Francis is a three-star tailback out of Hillside (Durham, N.C.) High School, while Logan, a four-star out of Northern Guilford (Greensboro, N.C.) High School, has watched his stock skyrocket after a 510-yard, eight-touchdown performance in the state championship game earlier this month.

While the coaching staff had plenty of time to cover Bernard's potential departure through recruiting, replacing the Boca Raton, Fla. native on the field in 2013 will prove more difficult.

Red-shirt senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, 9 TDs) and red-shirt sophomore Romar Morris (386 yards, 2 TD) are the known quantities leading into spring ball. Both benefitted with increased playing time early in 2012 due to Bernard's left knee injury that sidelined him against Wake Forest and Louisville.

"They've gotten some really meaningful experience in games and so you've got kind of a thunder and lightning look there with Romar's speed and quickness and Blue as the big bruising kind of guy that runs extremely hard," Fedora said. "I think the experience that they got this year is going to really pay off next year. Both of them were involved in every special team and that's something that we stress a lot here at the University of North Carolina. I think they're ready and anxious to step into the roll and hopefully take over the team and shoulder the load."

Bernard, as expected, offered significant praise for his replacements.

"Those guys are just as good as me."

It was a heartfelt, honest answer by the diminutive tailback that carved his way into UNC football lore with his 74-yard punt return for touchdown with 13 seconds left against N.C. State.

Fedora, standing several feet to Bernard's left, couldn't help but to smile at the comment. The first-year UNC head coach wasn't the only person in the Kenan Football Center's media room with that reaction.

After all, a player of Bernard's caliber is a rarity at the college level, let alone North Carolina. Regardless of the amount of preparation for his departure, the Tar Heels will likely find it difficult to replace the void of Bernard's departure.

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