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April 20, 2012

Sprinting to success

The spread offense evokes images of quarterbacks scrambling for long runs or a field flooded with wide receivers.

But the position that may well benefit the most from Carolina's conversion to the spread is running back.

This might not be the case if the Tar Heels did not have such talented athletes at the position, but the combination of Giovani Bernard, Romar Morris and A.J. Blue could turn out to be the most gifted group UNC has had at the same time in quite a while.

"Romar has been doing this all camp," Bernard said of the explosive performance Morris had in the spring game. "Having someone like that who can push me and push Blue, it's like a three-headed monster."

Monster is right.

Bernard showed last season just what a gifted runner he is. Time and again he ripped huge gains en route to 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 per carry and became the first 1,000-yard rusher at Carolina since Jon Linton in 1997.

"Gio, you can tell from day one, day two, day three, he's a natural football player," first-year coach Larry Fedora said. "It doesn't matter what style of offense you are running. You put the ball in his hands, and he can make some plays. He can do special things with it."

Then there is Morris, a track star in high school. So speed was never an issue, but he appeared as if he might be slight. His performance in the spring game showed Morris is anything but slight.

"He will step up and hit you for protection," said Blake Anderson, the new offensive coordinator.

Morris said that he worked hard to make sure he could take the hits and keep coming.

"This off-season I was focusing on getting stronger so I could be more durable in the backfield, so I can be able to help the team out more," Morris said. "I've gained about 10 pounds. I'm about 185 now."

Blue is an outstanding athlete himself, but he may turn out to be the power back of the three.

What makes Bernard and Morris so dangerous is their speed combined with vision and an ability to be elusive.

Morris' speed has been timed and tested repeatedly. In high school, he ran a 10.54-second 100-meters and 21.47-second 200-meters. He captured back-to-back state 2-A titles in the 100 and 200-meter dashes.

Then in the spring game, he showed it is not just track speed. This kid is a football player.

"He's got the ability," Anderson said. "He has a burst."

The spread is going to showcase the bust of Bernard and Morris. Defenses must spread themselves across the field because they will face multiple receivers on every play.

"The whole five-wide spread, no-huddle, get the tempo going in our favor, it has really helped us this spring," quarterback Bryn Renner said.

And that is exactly what is going to help these jackrabbit running backs.

"It has gotten me one-on-one a little bit more," Bernard said. "They can't stack the box because they have to cover the receivers outside. It's been opening up all spring, and it showed us something in the spring game."

There is more.

The coaching staff is pushing the wide receivers for additional contributions, not just running routes and catching passes. They are going to be spread across the field, so they might as well help the runners.

"The coaches have been stressing the receivers blocking downfield and getting after it," Bernard said. "A lot of times, they make the play. They make that last guy miss. They are working real hard at it."

If this all comes together as is possible, Bernard and Morris could turn out to be the best combination of running backs in the ACC this fall.

"Me and Gio can bring a great combination, and A.J. Blue also," Morris said. "We're all different runners. We have great talent, and we can all run in different ways."

But they will meet at the same spot -- in the end zone.


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