North Carolina’s running game is going to get a makeover this offseason.
As coach Larry Fedora enters his second season, he does so arguably with a bigger challenge on offense than he did at this point a year ago. With Giovani Bernard, the nation’s top punt returner and No. 11 rusher, leaving two years early to enter the NFL draft, the Tar Heels will lose their most explosive playmaker on both offense and special teams. Equally as important, though -- if not more -- is the fact that All-American offensive tackle Jonathan Cooper, who was Bernard’s lead blocker, is also gone along with two other starters on the offensive line.
The good news for 2013: UNC will return offensive tackle James Hurst, a three-year starter, and center Russell Bodine. Guard Landon Turner started the past four games after Brennan Williams got hurt. At running back, UNC returns senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, nine touchdowns) and sophomore Romar Morris (386 yards, two touchdowns). The staff is confident it has recruited well at that position. Khris Francis, a four-star recruit, is rated the No. 31 running back in his class by ESPN.com.
While having to replace three starters on the offensive line is never easy, there is at least experience at running back waiting in the wings. It’s going to be even more difficult to replace Bernard on UNC’s special teams.
T.J. Thorpe, who led the ACC in kickoff returns in 2011, returns after redshirting this year with a foot injury, but the staff isn’t sure if he can/will return punts. North Carolina will sorely miss Bernard’s home-run ability in the return game.
UNC won eight games in Fedora’s first season, but he inherited an offense tailor-made for success. This year, Fedora is going to have to be the one who puts the pieces together.