The sophomore tailback is coming off the first 1,000-yard season by a UNC player since the Mack Brown era. Now he's running a spread offense in preseason camp that new coach Larry Fedora brought with him from Southern Mississippi. While the offense is typically associated with the pass, Fedora hasn't shied from running the football and promises Bernard will be heavily involved in the gameday attack.
"This offense really just spreads everything out," Bernard said Saturday during the team's preseason media day. "The spread opens up more holes. It's more open field with more receivers on the field, so (defenses) have to put more DBs out there and a lot less guys in the box."
Bernard entered last year after a knee injury that cost him all of the 2010 season, but he ran for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged better than 5 yards per carry, becoming the first Tar Heel to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Jonathan Linton in Brown's final season here in 1997.
That included a run of five straight 100-yard games. Bernard, whose season-high was 165 yards against Duke, became the first Tar Heel to run for at least 150 yards three times in the same season since 1988.
But that production came in a pro-style offense under John Shoop, not the spread that Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson spent the spring installing in Chapel Hill. Still, Fedora's last team at Southern Miss averaged more than 205 yards on the ground compared to 256 yards passing per game.
"I think Gio sees the opportunity to touch the ball more often than he has in the past," Fedora said. "I think he's excited about that."
Junior quarterback Bryn Renner said he expects Bernard will thrive in the new scheme.
"I think it's going to be great for him," Renner said. "It'll get him more in open space, more running lanes for him to do his job. He's a great runner in between the tackles so we're going to try to get him the ball as much as possible."
Even if the Tar Heels throw more, Bernard has also proven he can be an asset in the passing game. He was third on the team with 45 catches for 362 yards and a score last season.
For Bernard, the biggest adjustment hasn't been the plays. Rather, it's been the go-go-go pace that Fedora and Anderson want the offense to run.
Bernard got his first taste of it in spring practice, and the Tar Heels opened training camp Friday. If he adjusts quickly, Bernard will be poised for another big season.
"I don't think it's going to change," junior offensive tackle James Hurst said. "He's still going to be a very, very good player and still compete to the best running back in the nation — in my opinion."