North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard is arguably the top running back returning in the ACC this fall. As a freshman last year, he finished third in the ACC in rushing with 1,263 yards, a 5.2 average and 13 touchdowns. He also had 45 pass receptions for 362 yards and a touchdown. His combined yardage (1,625) is the second-most by a freshman in ACC history.
So how does he top that in 2012?
I asked him on Thursday. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
What has the new scheme (implemented by new head coach Larry Fedora) been like for you, particularly from your position?
Giovani Bernard: For me, I ran it a little bit in high school, so I’m not really too worried about it. The tempo is really the change for me. As a running back, you have to be able to adapt to whatever you’re doing. I think the tempo is really what has changed most for most of the guys. We’re doing a good job of learning it.
Can you tell the average Joe like me just how much faster it is? Whether it’s a number of snaps, or counting in your head, can you try to describe how fast it is?
GB: Before Bryn [Renner] would come to the huddle, tell us the play, we’d take our time getting to the ball and then snap. Right now we’re moving, and looking at the sideline, and trying to analyze the information they’re relaying to us from the sideline. It’s a lot of stuff going in a really quick time, but so far the guys are doing a great job of picking it up and learning it.
How do you practice that on your own since the coaches can’t be with you right now?
GB: Really you have to get in the film room. The film crew has done a great job of having everything in the film room ready to use and the running backs are going in there twice a week. We hit it hard and everybody gets in there and learns their stuff.
Do you like it?
GB: Yeah, I love the new aspect of it. It’s a change, and that’s what this university wanted and needed -- a change.
Rumor has it you have a pretty good offensive line to work with this year. What’s your take on that group?
GB: Definitely. They’ve done a great job. They did a great job last year, and having all of those guys come back is a blessing. I’m definitely excited to have all of those guys in front of me helping me out. As a running back, everything is because of them. I’m grateful to have them in front of me. It’s exciting to have those guys all back and helping me out. Hopefully I can help them out a little more this year.
So when you have such an outstanding rookie season, how do you top it?
GB: Have a better season (laughs).
Is that easier said than done?
GB: You have to approach it like I did my freshman year, just go in, sit in the film room and learn everything. In a sense, it kind of is like my freshman year. I didn’t know the system too well coming in. It’s something you have to pick up and learn and get used to, and just do what you have to do to get better.
How have you changed both physically and mentally from last year?
GB: Mentally, just adversity-wise. Sometimes, you’re going to have a bad game and you have to get over those games. If you lose a game, you have to get over it. You have to get ready for the next week. I think for me, it’s the whole mental aspect of forgetting the bad and bringing in the new. Physically, as a running back you’re trying to get bigger, faster and stronger. That’s what I’m trying to do.
From your perspective, what’s it going to be like playing knowing that you won’t be in the postseason this year?
GB: It has no effect on me at all. I know a lot of the guys out here are just trying to do what they can do throughout those games we are allowed to play in. The whole postseason ban doesn’t play a factor for us at all. We just want to go out there and play football and show everybody what we can do in the short amount of time that we have.
How does it feel knowing you're probably regarded by many people as the top running back returning in the ACC?
GB: For me, I don't look at that stuff. I've got to go out there and prove myself every game, just like I did last year. Having people say that is a blessing but at the same time I still have to go out and prove myself every game.
One more thing: What's your take on a four-team playoff for college football? What do you think about that?
GB:I think it's great. It adds a whole NFL kind of feel to it. Fans are going to love that aspect of the game. As players, some other divisions weren't able to get that BCS bid. They have great players, but might not have had the opportunity to get to the BCS national championship game. Now since they have this whole playoff, they can really prove themselves.
You think it's a good thing for the ACC, that you guys will all get a fair shot?
GB: Definitely, definitely. All of the teams will get a fair shot. That's the whole aspect of the playoff, it gives everyone a fair shot to get to the next level.