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Nov. 4, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – For a player as fast and explosive as North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard, you might be surprised to learn how he describes himself as a runner.
“I try to be patient,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the same thing as being patient in daily life. On the football field, patience lasts split seconds after receiving the handoff. Instead of barreling full-tilt to a designated hole, he uses his vision to make sure he has a way to get there or can bounce the play in another direction. He runs with a low center of gravity and relies on cuts to find a space.
“I try to be patient and wait for the hole to develop and wait for the blockers,” Bernard explained. “It’s just a matter of hitting the hole at the right time and knowing when to go full speed and when to shift down a gear or two.”
He comes by the knack naturally. His brother, Yvenson (pronounced Evanson), who plays in the Canadian Football League, drilled that knowledge into him.
“He always taught me ‘be patient, be patient as a running back,’ that was the key,” Bernard said. “Growing up that was beaten into my brain – ‘be patient, wait for your blocks to develop.’ I think it paid off, starting at a young age and having a role model like my brother. It helped him, and it has helped me.”
Yvenson Bernard is seven years older than Giovani and played at Oregon State, where he gained 3,862 career yards and made first-team All-Pac-10 in 2006 and second team in 2007. He was the Offensive MVP in the Beavers’ win over Maryland in the 2007 Emerald Bowl, gaining 177 yards on 38 carries. Although he now plays in Saskatchewan, the two remain close.
“I talk to him probably every day, usually at night around 9 o’clock,” Giovani Bernard said. “We always send each other text messages, we might Skype each other, just seeing how things are back home, small things in life that are not always about football.”
The brothers were born in Florida, but their parents (their mother died of cancer several years ago) are natives of Haiti. Bernard said people sometimes think he’s Italian because of his first name. Turns out he was named after one of his father’s best friends.
“My dad really liked the name, and I enjoy it,” Bernard said. “I kind of like Giovani, the whole thing, but I don’t mind Gio.”
Defensive coordinators around the ACC probably have a few other names for Bernard. Through nine games the redshirt freshman has carried the ball 168 times for 965 yards (a 5.7 average) and 11 touchdowns. He has caught 33 passes for 248 yards and another TD.
So far Bernard ranks second in the league in rushing yards, third in per-game average (107.2), fourth in overall scoring (72 points on 12 TDs) and fifth in all-purpose yards.
“Great player, great player,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose Deacons were torched for 154 yards and three TDs (one receiving) by Bernard. “The thing that he does such a nice job of, he's got the great foot speed. He had two long runs against us that really hurt us.
“He's really tough and will run between the tackles. That's what's unusual to find. You have power runners that will hit it in between the tackles pretty good, but they don't have the speed out on the perimeter. Then some kids have the foot speed, but they can't get inside. This is a kid that does both.”
This Saturday the team that’s trying to keep Bernard in check is North Carolina State. Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien called Bernard a complete player.
“Well, he has very good quickness (and) he has good vision,” O’Brien said. “When you have a line that has three guys that are 6-7, a couple 6-3, 6-2 guys, all 300 pounds, he gets behind them and he pops out.
“The thing he has (is) breakaway speed. He runs away from people, (makes) great cuts, has good vision. It will be a great challenge for our team.”
It was hard to know what to expect from Bernard this season because he had been off the field for so long. In preseason camp last year, he tore the ACL in his right knee on the third day of practice. That’s when he had to find another kind of patience.
“Things happen for a reason and that’s kind of how I dealt with it,” Bernard said. I told myself ‘this is a minor setback,’ even though it was a year-ending injury. I got in the rehab room to build on what I had, getting bigger and stronger. Even though I didn’t have a knee that worked real well, you can do other things to make yourself a better football player.”
When he wasn’t rehabbing, Bernard learned as much about the Tar Heels offense in the film room as he could. By December, while the team prepared for its bowl game, he was able to run some cutting drills at full speed.
During spring practice he continued to rehab, participating only in non-contact drills. There was a practice the day after the spring game and one play dispelled any lingering doubts.
“They gave me a toss to the right side and I cut all the way back on a reverse field,” he said. “I was cutting off my right knee and that was the knee that was hurt, so after that I knew I was going to be fine. It was a matter of time and getting it stronger than what it was before and a matter of being smart and being focused on what I needed to do.”
Bernard was ready for preseason camp in August. The coaches took it slowly with him and the patience paid off.
“I took every day by itself, not thinking too far ahead,” he said. “As training camp went on, I got more and more reps and that was the way to do it.”
UNC head coach Everett Withers saw something special in Bernard even before he went down so early in last year’s camp.
“Even in the first day or so in camp, you went like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be something, even (practicing) in shorts’,” Withers said. “You knew the guy had special running skills, ability, that type of deal.
“We really try to take care of him because we knew that the guy could be special just because of his work ethic and because of how he carried himself. When he played on the football field, he really gave 100 percent. We know he can make plays; we just have to take care of him, make sure he's with us at the end.”
Bernard is 5-10, 205 pounds and reminds Withers of former NFL star Barry Sanders with the way he can bounce a play outside.
“People don't realize how powerful he is,” Withers said. “He can go and hit it up inside, get two or three tough yards.”
His production is not a real surprise to Bernard, who said he prepared himself for a successful season through all his rehab work.
“I don’t know if I expected it,” he said, “but as a football player you want to achieve the biggest things, and I have that mentality. I put a lot of heart into it and hard work into it and I’m happy to see that it paid off.”
Down the road, Bernard wants to keep improving everything – vision, cuts, speed, making the right moves after a catch.
“I’m always looking to get better,” he said. “It’s something I pride myself on, being the best player I can be.”
For the rest of this season, Bernard wants to help the Tar Heels (6-3) win their last three games to position themselves for the best bowl game possible. And continue having fun along the way.
“If you’re not enjoying every day, if you’re not enjoying the blood, sweat and tears, football is not the sport for you,” he said.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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