Though he alternated series with Ryan Houston, and only ended up with nine carries (totaling 64 yards) to Houston’s 16, Bernard whetted the appetites of Tar Heel fans and even his teammates.
“That was just a quick flash,” Houston said of Bernard’s performance.
Bernard - a redshirt freshman who was sidelined last season due to injury - has shiftiness, but not shiftiness to no purpose. When he changes direction, it is to move to the hole or to set up a blocker – which he did on several occasions, waiting for the blocks to develop in front of him.
“He’ll put you right up on the block you got to get and duck behind you, tell you to go right or go left, 'I’m going this way,' and he’ll push you into the block and make your job so much easier,” offensive guard Jon Cooper said.
It’s something that Bernard takes pride in, and he demonstrated great patience on several of his runs.
“That’s one thing that my dad and my uncle taught us about football, really setting your blocks," Bernard said. "Those (offensive linemen) have their own jobs, and they’re helping us, and if we can help them out by setting the block, making the defensive players come to them, and helping them out, if you help another guy out while you’re doing your job, that’s the key to the play."
It is to Bernard’s advantage that Houston not only has a different style of running, but presents a different profile to the defense.
“A lot of guys, even during training camp, they said it was real tough seeing me, because, hey, I’m a little height-challenged, and I even run a little lower than guys my height,” Bernard said.
Houston elaborated on Bernard's ability to hide behind UNC’s massive offensive line.
“Gio is going to break the long runs, I’m kind of a short-yardage, pound-it guy,” Houston said. “Gio hides behind the line, he’s four-foot-nothing. It’s easy after I bruise them up for minute, Gio comes in, and they’re like, ‘Where is the running back at?’”
Bernard was also good in pass protection and didn’t whiff on any blocks that were needed to protect quarterback Bryn Renner. After losing all of last season, Bernard obviously used the time to his advantage. He’s a smart kid, and he’s picked up his role, whether it is running the ball or blocking.
He also apparently has a nose for the end zone, scoring on two touchdown runs. It wasn’t just the number of touchdowns that he scored that was impressive, it was the runs themselves – the first one a 12-yarder, the other a 14-yarder. That’s not something that North Carolina fans have seen much of in a long time – rushing touchdowns from outside the 10-yard line.
“He’s so shifty,” Renner said. “He made a move when we were in a two-minute thing and I handed off to him, and the hole wasn’t even there, then it broke open and he scored. It’s such a luxury to have that.”
The writers in the press box were struggling to find an apt comparison for the type of ability Bernard brings to the table. Cooper had a ready example at hand.
“Maybe a Maurice Jones-Drew (of the Jacksonville Jaguars) kind of running back,” Cooper said. “He’s a stout kind of guy, he’s a little smaller than Maurice Jones-Drew, but he is shifty and he’ll run people over. That’s one thing I love about him, he’ll hit it outside on a stretch for a big gain, but he’ll hit it inside for the tough yards.”
The Jones-Drew comparison was one that Bernard also thought of, in terms of the type of back he likes to emulate.
“Probably Maurice Jones-Drew or my brother actually, Yvenson Bernard (Oregon State, now in the CFL),” Bernard said. “My brother has such a great way of setting blocks, both these guys have a great way of setting blocks, and that’s what really makes them great players.”
Obviously football is a team game, and UNC’s offensive line and its passing attack helped the Tar Heels and Bernard have success on the ground, but after one game and just nine carries, it seems clear that Bernard was worth the wait.