August 12, 2011

Little big man

Leaving home for many college freshmen is a difficult and gut-wrenching experience.

Suffering a serious knee injury and waking up from surgery several states from home can magnify the loneliness that often accompanies being separated from family for the first time.

"The first day out of surgery, being away from home, not having family members around, it was tough," redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard said Thursday during UNC's annual football media day.

Fortunately, some members of his family were able to come from Florida to spend a couple of weeks with Bernard, who is known as Gio to his teammates.

While his family's visit helped him initially, he was the person who had to make the difference in the long run.

"There were so many times I had low points," Bernard said. "Having my mom, my father, my uncle, my brother, having those people just a phone call away every day helped me keep my head up."

He is healthy now, back at practice working out, excited about the prospect of playing football again. Some of the toughest times last season arose at the start of home games, when he walked from the tunnel into a packed Kenan Stadium after his teammates had already raced onto the field, eager and excited to play.

"Almost every Saturday I had a low point," Bernard said. "I would see my team I committed to, and I wasn't padded up. I couldn't help them out."

As with so many experiences in life, what hurt the most were the little things that others probably did not notice.

"It's going to be amazing [running out of the tunnel for the first game this season]," Bernard said. "They usually do the injured guys last. All the team has already run out there. All the smoke was already done.

"So it's going to be a different thing."

If he can remain healthy, his presence should provide the Tar Heels with a new, effective weapon. He is listed at 5 foot 10, 205 pounds. Quickness and speed are two of his main attributes.

"He's actually a complete running back," offensive tackle James Hurst said. "If you look at him, he's a smaller guy. He's incredibly quick, incredibly fast. He has great vision.

"If you make a tiny little space for him to run, he's going to find it and slip through there for about 20 yards. As an offense, we're excited about his big-play potential."

First-year head coach Everett Withers said the coaching staff is thrilled with Bernard's talent, but they are also happy with the depth of talent which the Tar Heels have at this point.

Ryan Houston, Bernard and A.J. Blue are excellent athletes, and most teams need more than one guy to carry the ball in order to get through a 12-game regular season.

Today's backs absorb a pounding that can have accumulative effects, if not moments of more serious injuries.

"Coach [Ken] Browning mentioned the other day that we've used four running backs the last two years," Withers said. "There has been a need for four. We're trying to get as many guys who can run and not force them to be anything that they are not."

And what Bernard appears to be, according to his teammates and coaches, is a compact, explosive player capable of creating instant offense when he gets a chance.

"A lot of guys I've talked to at practice say they can't even see me coming out of the backfield," Beranard said, smiling. "Being a little shifty guy kind of helps."



 

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