The All-ACC tailback suffered a left knee injury during the second quarter of UNC’s season-opening win over Elon and the ensuing events set off a chain reaction of intense speculation that lasted a full three weeks, or at least until Bernard took his team’s first snap against East Carolina.
Bernard, who told reporters that he felt 100 percent before the game, rushed 18 times for 50 yards and caught six passes for 52 yards. He scored two touchdowns; one on a four-yard run, one on a 14-yard screen pass.
“I was really happy to see Gio get back out there – to see him get hits, see him make people miss, see him jump, see him catch the ball, see him get in the end zone,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s just going to give him more confidence.”
Quarterback Bryn Renner labeled Bernard’s return as being ”huge.”
“He’s one of the best backs in the country, so it doesn’t hurt to have him,” the junior signal caller quipped.
Bernard didn’t travel with his teammates to Louisville last weekend. He watched the game at home with his girlfriend, admitting that he had to change the channel several times during the first half.
“I knew last week that I was able to play, but I didn’t want to risk it,” he said.
He provided a blunt answer when asked what it was like to miss the last two games.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but it sucked,” Bernard said. “It wasn’t fun. You just want to be out there with your team. You want to be out there with your teammates, the guys you worked out with all summer and all spring. They’ve done a great job filling it, but I just want to be out there with my team. It killed me not being able to travel last week…
“It’s not the best feeling seeing your best friends out there playing and you’re sitting on the sidelines. It kind of took me back to the memory of my freshman year when I wasn’t able to play.”
After tearing the ACL in his right knee on the third day of training camp in 2010, Bernard wanted to make sure he was at full health before returning to the lineup.
“At the beginning of the week, I told myself I was not going to come back unless I felt that I could play at my potential,” Bernard said. “Obviously, I was out there playing today. I wasn’t going to risk injuring it further because I’ve gone through injuries in my past, so I didn’t want to risk my whole career, so I made sure that I was ready to go.”
Despite serving as UNC’s starting punt returner in the season opener – returning two kicks for 100 yards and a touchdown – Bernard did not play on special teams against East Carolina. Wide receivers Roy Smith and Erik Highsmith handled those duties for the Tar Heels.
“Coming back, he didn’t have as many reps in practice back there catching punts,” Fedora said. “I just didn’t feel as comfortable putting him back there as I did the other guys from all the reps the previous two weeks.”
Possibly the best news of the evening came during Fedora’s postgame press conference, when the head coach mentioned that he spoke with Bernard after the game. The sophomore tailback told Fedora that he felt “really good.”
Hopefully that means this saga has come to a close for all parties involved.
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