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North Carolina Football: Can Michael Carter be the next Gio Bernard?

It’s not a fair comparison, but his emergence sure would help Carolina’s offense reach its potential in 2017.

Virginia Tech v North Carolina
This is art.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Carolina would be really fortunate to have another Giovani Bernard in the near future, or really ever. His acceleration, vision, and patience— the way he set up blocks was beautiful, and quite literally uncoachable when your instinct is to not get steamrolled by 300-pound men— were all among the best I’ve ever seen.

His lone year in the Fed Spread, although hijacked early by injuries, was a freaking highlight reel. He finished with a crazy 122.8 yards per game rushing, 490 yards receiving, and 17 total touchdowns from scrimmage.

He also had two punt return touchdowns, one a little more steeped in Tar Heel lore than the one he had against Idaho:

Bernard was awesome in Carolina Blue, and left after his redshirt sophomore season to become the first running back drafted in 2013— ahead of names such as Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, and Montee Ball.

So...who is Michael Carter?

Carter is a freshman running back from Navarre High School in Florida. An early enrollee, he chose #3 as his jersey number, and likely starts fall camp in the same spot on the depth chart with veterans Jordon Brown and Stanton Truitt ahead of him.

You’ll see from his film that he played in an offense very similar to Carolina’s in high school, and put up a modest 45 touchdowns as a senior.

What does this have to do with Bernard?

The lazy comparison is simple: both are Florida running backs. Thanks for embedding 10 minutes of video to reach that thrilling conclusion, you say.

There’s more, though. Consider:

  • Bernard, out of high school: 5’9, 200 lbs. Carter: 5’8.5, 195 lbs.
  • Bernard, a longtime Notre Dame commit, enrolled at UNC because they continued to recruit him despite a major injury. Carter missed most of his junior season, but UNC stuck with him despite early favorites such as Florida backing off.
  • Both aren’t your typical explosive, track speed scatbacks— but both have a penchant for making a big play.
  • THEY’RE BOTH FLORIDA RUNNING BACKS! (Navarre and Aquinas are over 9 hours apart, or a longer drive apart than Chapel Hill to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Columbus, Tampa, or Orlando)

Most striking, however, is the similarity in their running styles. Neither back possesses true breakaway speed like a T.J. Logan, but both are incredible at doing the things that don’t show up at the combine. After checking Carter’s film above, see how Bernard does the same things well: using vision and anticipation to set up blockers, creating angles (despite lack of top-end speed) with deceptive acceleration, and finding cutback lanes.

I’ll go out on a limb and say the Cincinnati Bengal has a just a tad more wiggle at this stage, but from a pure comparative standpoint... Bernard and Carter are strikingly similar.

Why is he so important this year?

Quite simply, Carolina has no reason not to give him every chance to succeed. Gone are Logan and Elijah Hood’s combined 4,745 rushing yards and 48 TD’s. In their place, the sophomore Brown returns a depressing 45 yards on 20 carries. Truitt had 215 yards on the ground and 113 through the air in two years at Auburn, and converted linebackers Jonathan Sutton and Kayne Roberts round out the depth chart.

Under Fedora, the best offenses have had a true featured back. They ranked 16th in yards per play in 2012 with Bernard, and 1st in 2015 behind Hood’s 1400+ yards. In 2013, ‘running back by committee’ worked for 1928 yards in 13 games, and an offense that ranked 48th in YPP. In 2014, an early injury to Hood forced more of the same— 1968 yards, 66th in YPP.

Despite his youth, Carter is the upside play if the staff wants to get one back the lion’s share of the carries. With Brandon Harris likely to win the starting quarterback job and demand attention in the read-option, the freshman will have his lanes in the inside zone. Last year, this was an issue because of Mitch Trubisky’s limited run threat.

Truitt demonstrates straight-line speed, and Brown showed some power in his brief forays in the 2016 backfield. Carter fits the mold of more of a true running back— shifty, patient, and explosive when the time is right.

Its not that the 2017 offense can’t be successful without a featured back emerging, it’s just that the odds improve greatly if one does. Because he looks like a carbon copy of one of the most prolific backs in Tar Heel history, he’s the pick to be the guy.