A prep star who had led his high school team to consecutive Florida 5A state titles, Gio Bernard elected to attend North Carolina, largely because he wanted to play in coach Butch Davis's pro style offense. Ironically, Bernard's most successful year came after Davis was fired. In 2012, he flourished in new head coach Larry Fedora's up-tempo spread offense, leading the ACC in yards per game (he totaled 1,228 yards in just 10 games). In addition, the multi-purpose Bernard caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns and returned 16 punts for 263 yards and two scores, leading the ACC with a 16.4 yard average per return.
But Bernard was no one-year wonder. He exploded onto the scene in 2011 following a redshirt year, earning first-team All-ACC honors after rushing for 1,253 yards with 13 touchdowns, adding 45 catches for 362 yards and one touchdown (his fourteen total scores tied for the ACC lead). Bernard's big-play ability is evident in this video of the Tar Heels' 2011 game against Miami.
In tape from his 2012 campaign (Draft Breakdown features games against North Carolina State, Duke, and Virginia Tech), we can see that Bernard runs powerfully for a man his size (5-10, 205). He has quick feet and loose hips, making smooth lateral cuts in the hole and excellent acceleration in the open field. Best of all, Bernard boasts terrific peripheral vision and very good patience. He runs with very good pad level, natural leverage and balance, keeping his feet and fighting for extra yardage. As his impressive return averages suggest, he has a rare top gear.
What do our scouts think of Bernard's game? Read on, dear BTBers, and prepare to be amazed...!
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 8th-rated RB; 114th overall
Competitiveness: Good competitiveness as a runner and football player. Willing to do whatever he can to help team win. Versatile, tough for size and has very good stamina.
Vision/ Patience: At his best working downhill, rather than east-west behind zone-blocking. Shows very good patience waiting for his blocks to develop. Instincts are good. Does a solid job pressing the line and forcing defenders to commit.
Agility/ Acceleration: Super quick feet. Has good initial burst and outstanding lateral agility. Can stop-start on a dime. Accelerates off cuts. Very good quickness in and out of the hole. Can string together multiple moves. Very slippery between the tackles. Only knock here is his lack of a second-gear. He has good burst to and through the hole but he levels off within 10 yards. Will not win many foot races versus DBs with average speed or LBs with good speed.
Power/ Balance: Runs hard and low to the ground. Has adequate balance but he is a narrow-based runner with a marginal combination of size and strength. Does not generate enough yards after initial contact. But lacks size and power. Narrow based runner. Runs with knees low and gets tripped up frequently.
Passing Game: Soft hands. Confident catching the ball. Secures ball quickly in traffic and gets upfield with little wasted motion. Not a burner but can make first defender miss and can weave his way through some traffic. Small target, gets lost at times. Willing to stick his face on blitzing linebacker. Gets in position, uses leverage and keeps his feet moving in pass pro. Consistently overmatched at point of attack due to marginal size and strength.
Intangibles: Son of Hatian immigrants, Jossette and Yvenson. Mother, Jossette, died of cancer in 1999, when Gio was 7 years old. Older brother, Yvenson, was an all-conference tailback at Oregon State and played in the CFL. Initially committed to Notre Dame but a coaching change altered his plans. 2011 Brian Piccalo Award winner for courage after bouncing back from knee injury. Hard worker, dedicated player and excellent football character.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 2nd-rated RB; 64th overall
Strengths: Bernard is compactly built with good lower body drive, running decisive and hard with some power. He has quick feet and loose hips to make smooth lateral cuts and make open field moves with the acceleration to force poor angles by defenders. Bernard has elusive moves and makes quick decisions, using terrific peripheral vision with little hesitation. He uses his eyes well to quickly survey the field and set up his moves, finding the hole and creating room for him to run. Bernard has very good patience and feel as a runner, showing the awareness to pick through defenses and get everything out of each touch. He runs with very good pad level, natural leverage and balance to keep his feet and continue to fight forward.
Bernard runs close to the ground and is a tough ballcarrier to square up for defenders due to his smaller stature and active run style. He is able to carry some tacklers with his leg drive and toughness and always seems to be falling forward. Bernard is an effective pass catcher with very good focus and hands to make tough grabs (almost 100 career catches). He has some return experience on punts with two career special teams touchdowns, including the game-winning score against NC State in 2012. Bernard has been productive the past two seasons with over 2,500 career rushing yards, the first North Carolina running back to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons since Natrone Means (1991-92). He can do it all and be left on the field on any down, in any situation.
Weaknesses: Bernard lacks breakaway speed and can be caught from behind. He doesn't have ideal build and strength for the position, lacking the growth potential to get much bigger. Bernard needs to stay focused on returns, he botched a return against Virginia in 2012 and the Cavaliers recovered. He has strong durability concerns, missing two games in 2012 and parts of several other contests with various injuries including to his shoulder and lower body (also tore his ACL in 2010). Bernard gives good effort in pass protection, but limited due to his size and has room to improve.
Compares To: Besides durability and a smaller-than-ideal frame, it's tough to find negatives to Gio's game. Reminds me a lot of Trent Richardson, just not as powerful or durable. Borderline first-rounder.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 4th-rated RB; 41st overall
Positives: Strong, compact build with a low center fo gravity and surprising inside run skill - has a knack for navigating through traffic. Runs with outstanding balance, follows his blocks and can create yardage on his own. Drives his legs through a pile. Nice wiggle in the open field - sets up tacklers and can shake and spin off defenders. Brandishes a strong stiff arm. Very natural catcher with soft hands and outstanding hand-eye coordination. Catches on contact and is not fazed by traffic. Very effective on screens and misdirection. Has return potential. Outstanding versatility - can do it all.
Negatives: Benefitted heavily from an NFL-quality O-line and much of his production was blocked for him (untouched on both punt returns and many long gains). Questionable toughness - pulls himself out of games for minor nicks and could stand to add more glass in his diet. Not a strong drive-through tackle-breaker. Lacks elite top-end, finishing speed.
Summary: Built in similar compact mold as former second-rounders Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars) and Ray Rice (Ravens), Bernard possesses similar vision and run instincts and even better hands, though he does not run with the same tackle-breaking power, urgency or body lean and could stand to become more nuanced in pass pro. Instant impact utility back who could wear down fast if thrust into an every-down role. Is not a wardaddy designed to carry a full workload.
Ourlads (Dan Shonka): 3rd-rated RB; 65th overall
Junior entry. Two year starter with experience in a pro style and a spread up-tempo offense. A dynamic playmaker when healthy. Productive as a runner, pass catcher and punt return specialist. A redshirt sophomore who is an impact runner and game changer. Quick and elusive laterally. Powerful lower body. Quick to and through the hole. Has natural instincts and feel for running the ball. Quick reactions. Ability to create positive yardage on poorly blocked plays. Emmitt Smith type feet and vision. A top level punt returner. Fringe size for a feature back. Durability concerns. History of injuries, must be close to 100% to perform. Needs to improve his ability to hold up in pass protection. Question ability to take punishment, play hurt, and endurance after a long run. Follows and cuts off his blocks. Elusive with good downfield maneuverability. Lacks long finish speed. Not the feature bell cow, but a premium rotation type back. Has the skills to replace a stop gap starter or career backup.
Although our panel of experts seem to have a fairly divergent set of opinions about Bernard and his game, if we remove ESPN's Horton from the mix, they slot him in a much tighter range, from picks 41 to 65, which fall neatly into the second round. Despite Horton's protestations, I'm going to agree with the majority here. Frankly, I see flashes of Ray Rice and Emmitt Smith in Bernard (CBSSports's Dane Brugler claims that he's a smaller - and less powerful and durable - Trent Richardson). I can't imagine he'll make it out of round two; that's where I'm placing him on my 2013 "little board."
Bernard would be a wonderful complement to the more powerful yet less explosive DeMarco Murray. The looming question is whether the Cowboys can afford to spend the second round pick (the apparent cost for Bernard) on a running back, especially when comparable players at positions of more pressing need will almost certainly be there at #47. If they pick him, I'll feel much as I did last year when Dallas traded up for Mo Claiborne: I'll love the move (because of the player) and hate the move (because of the cost).
Next up: Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell