That is the last time a Tar Heel running back eclipsed the 1000 yard mark in one season. It was Jonathan Linton who tallied 1004 yards for a Tar Heel team that went 11-1 and won the Gator Bowl. Prior to that you go back to 1993 when UNC had not one but two 1000 yard rushers in Leon and Curtis Johnson which came a year after Natrone Means back-t0-back years of rushing for over 1000 yards. There was a time when UNC was better known in football for a strong running game with names like Amos Lawrence. Kelvin Bryant and the aforementioned Means.
After four games, it is clear UNC has the kind of tailback in Gio Bernard who can once again establish a solid rushing attack at UNC. The redshirt freshman has been hyped for over a year as "the real deal" and Bernard has not disappointed. His speed and agility have produced some exciting runs. Even on screen passes, Bernard can often do as much damage as any receiver on the field save Dwight Jones.
Checking in at the four game mark, Bernard has run for 402 yards or 100.5 yards per game. He is averaging 7.4 yards per carry and scored six TDs. The yards per carry stat is remarkable because Bernard is not heavily used. He is only averaging 13.5 carries per game. Compare that to the two running backs ahead of him in the ACC, Miami's Larmar Mill and Virginia Tech's David Wilson, who are averaging 20 and 22 carries per game respectively. UNC is getting solid production out of Bernard without necessarily running him too much which could help him stay strong through the course of the season.
The challenge ahead for Bernard and one of particular interest to UNC fans is whether or not 1000 yards for the season is possible. The short answer is yes. With eight games left, Bernard needs 598 yards to reach 1000. That averages out to 74.75 yards per game the rest of the way. In the first four games, Bernard has only had one game below 74 yards, that one versus James Madison when he was splitting time with Ryan Houston. Bernard rushed for 84 yards vs Rutgers, 101 vs Virginia and 155 this past weekend vs Georgia Tech. It stands to reason 74 yards per game is doable barring injury, a faltering passing game or the offensive line playing worse. One other factor is the opponents UNC will face and how well they defend the run. As of this writing here is UNC's remaining schedule and the rank of that team's rushing defense.
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On paper, Bernard will face some fairly bad rushing defenses, a handful of mediocre ones and a three in the top 20. Not that this stat alone tells the whole story. Lousiville is ranked 11th in rushing defense but as a team the Cardinals are not very good. Ball control is also a issue. If an opposing team can chew up huge chunks of clock or UNC falls behind, passing becomes more prevalent and the number of rushing attempts go down. In Bernard's case that may not matter since he is only getting 13 rushes a game anyway.
Taking the rankings for what they are worth at this point, it appears Bernard will have ample opportunity to get yards. Most teams now will begin to adjust to him specifically and it would be nice if the UNC offensive line would open up some running room on the interior so UNC can give Bernard some balance on where he runs the ball. If the Heels can establish some inside running with Bernard, at some point it is going to open the edges up and once Bernard turns the corner on a pitch to the outside, it is going for big yards. Because UNC has a good QB and an NFL caliber WR in Dwight Jones who is also producing a 100-plus yard per game average, there is enough balance in the offense to keep teams from completely focusing on the run. As Bernard proved on Saturday, all he needs is one good hole and his speed will do the rest.
However this turns out, Bernard is but a redshirt freshman playing with a redshirt sophomore quarterback. While a new coach is going to be starting out the NCAA cloud hanging over the program, knowing there are two solid commodities on offense will help any coach through the potentially bumpy early seasons of his tenure.