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July 31, 2013With training camp practices set to start for North Carolina Thursday morning, the Tar Heels are chomping at the bit to get going and see if they can build on the promise of the solid finish to the 2012 season and do even better in 2013.
Perhaps this fall they might even get a chance to play in the ACC Championship game that was denied them last year though technically they would have represented the Coastal Division had they not been under suspension.
UNC certainly doesn't have to look any farther down the line than the season opener August 29 against South Carolina in Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium for motivation not to waste any time over the next four weeks.
And for the program's featured running backs heading into the 2013 season---fifth-year senior A.J. Blue and third-year sophomore Romar Morris---the coming month is critical as they look to replace the productive and popular Giovani Bernard.
"It's a huge opportunity," said Blue. "That takes my carries from maybe eight to nine carries a game to maybe 11 to 20 carries a game. And that's exciting for me. That gives me a big opportunity, as well as Romar. A chance to go in and help your team win is a great opportunity."
"I'd say that really 15 (Blue) and 21 (Morris) are better than they were at the end of the season," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora after the Spring Game. "I would think that 21 and 15 are right there at the top (of the depth chart). 15 and 21 are pretty even right now. I don't think anybody stepped out and said, 'I'm the guy.' So we've got some work to do there."
"It's going to be by committee," added offensive coordinator Blake Anderson of UNC's running back situation.
"Obviously it's going to take all those guys to fill the holes, and at the tempo we play and the amount of snaps we play they're all going to have to have their role. But it allows for a change of pace. Kind of a one-two punch (with Blue and Morris). I think they have all accepted different roles, and I think they're doing a good job."
Blue and Morris are mature enough to realize they can't exactly replace Bernard, whose calm, friendly demeanor off the field was almost as endearing as his electrifying runs and game-breaking big plays on it.
But they're prepared to do whatever it takes in the coming weeks to make sure that between them, they can match or perhaps even best the production that helped Bernard become the best back in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We're really not trying to fill the void of Gio, because can't many people do that," said Blue. "We're not lowering our expectations by any means, but we're not trying to fill Gio's void either. We're trying to do what we can do to help the team win, and whatever that may be, that's what we're going to do."
"We're trying not to miss a beat at all. We know Gio's a great player. He taught us a lot," added Morris.
Bernard had a historic two-year run in Chapel Hill, but now the future lies in the hands of a pair of North Carolina natives who took distinctly different paths to get to this point in UNC football history.
For Blue, the path led from North Gaston High School in Dallas (N.C.) to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham (Va.), where for an entire academic year in 2008-2009 he ground hard in the classroom and on the field to put himself in position to enroll at UNC.
Unlike Blue, a lightly-regarded two-star recruit for much of his recruitment who only had a couple of major scholarship offers, Morris arrived at UNC in 2011 as the reigning NCHSAA Athlete of the Year---a two-time state champion in the 100 and 200 meters in track, and a state champion on the gridiron.
Morris had his pick of several Atlantic Coast Conference schools, and chose the Tar Heels as a key component of what turned out to be Butch Davis's final recruiting class at North Carolina.
Ironically, Blue had been one of the two offensive backfield centerpieces (along with the long-departed Jamal Womble) of Davis's first full signing class at North Carolina in 2008---a player that Davis likened to Frank Gore in his early days in Chapel Hill.
Both Blue and Morris took a redshirt season at UNC---Blue in 2010 and Morris in
2011---but for completely different reasons.
Blue entered the mix for UNC in the summer of 2009 and found playing time right away as a true freshman as a backup to quarterback T.J. Yates as a 'Wildcat' option in the offensive backfield. While he wasn't terribly successful running out of the 'Wildcat' that first autumn at UNC, Blue did complete a 24-yard pass against East Carolina.
He finally got a chance to line up at tailback in UNC's blowout of Georgia Southern that fall, and broke off an 11-yard run that afternoon to give the Kenan Stadium faithful a tiny glimpse of his immense potential.
But then disaster struck.
Blue suffered one of the most devastating injuries a running back can suffer---tears of all three major ligaments (ACL, MCL, PCL) in his left knee---that forced him off the field for the rest of that 2009 season and the entire 2010 season, as he took a medical redshirt.
Morris found himself behind Bernard on the UNC depth chart when he arrived in the summer of 2011, in what turned out to be Everett Withers' brief run as Carolina's head coach.
By that season Blue had returned, a full two years removed from his knee injury and healthy again. Blue had 33 carries as Bernard's primary backup that fall, as Withers and his staff elected to save Morris's redshirt.
The true test as to whether Morris would play as a rookie came in Blacksburg when Bernard was injured against Virginia Tech, but Withers went with Blue and he ran the ball nine times for 32 yards. He added a touchdown that fall against Wake Forest.
By 2012, as Fedora settled in for his first season in Chapel Hill, both Morris and Blue were behind Bernard on the UNC depth chart.
And while the trio provided North Carolina with remarkable running back depth in Fedora's first season---especially when Bernard was sidelined against Wake Forest and Louisville---neither one were in position to unleash their full potential.
But heading into this fall, as they're the clear top two options, Blue and Morris provide North Carolina with a unique one-two punch of speed and power---Blue with his long strides and his hard-charging, powerful running style, and Morris with his speed and ability to make people miss.
"Blue is a hard-nosed runner. He does a great job in pass protection. He's going to put his pads down and run behind his shoulder pads. He can catch the football and he can make plays," said Fedora.
"(Morris) is a guy that can take it from the goal line to goal line. There's only so many backs out there that can actually do that. You've got the ones (such as Morris) that you cross the 50, they can take it the distance. They're not going to get run down. Romar is not going to get run down from goal line to goal line because he can explode."
Interestingly enough, Blue thinks that he and Morris are more similar than a lot of people think.
It's easy to throw out the proverbial 'thunder and lightning' cliche when talking about a duo of a speed and power back, but Blue contends his game isn't all about power, and Morris isn't all speed and juking people.
"Honestly, I think we're kind of the same, as weird as it sounds," Blue said of he and Morris. "I mean, obviously he (Morris) is much faster than me. But if you would have compared him and Gio together, then you would see the comparison between me and (Morris)."
"Gio makes cuts---he's very, very patient---and he's got great agility. Not saying that Romar doesn't, but Romar is more of an uphill runner."
"And he (Morris) is so fast that he kind of, not struggles with his cuts, but he's just so fast that if its a cut, it's a (single) cut. It's not a cut (and then a double) cut like Gio. So I think in comparison me and Romar are kind of similar."
Both Blue and Morris showed their ability to make huge plays in the spring scrimmage the Tar Heels held in Charlotte, as Morris broke off an approximately 90-yard touchdown with his breakaway speed, while Blue reeled off a 70-yarder himself.
They were breathtaking efforts that for some might have said more about UNC's run defense than Blue and Morris, but they're not the type of plays that just anybody can make.
"It was kind of early in the scrimmage, and I wasn't quite loose yet but I was able to get 90-something yards. I thought I was going to get caught at the end, but I'm able to outrun them with my speed," said Morris of his long touchdown run in the scrimmage.
"That was my longest play since I've been in college," Blue added about his big play in Charlotte. "That was awesome. All I was thinking was, 'Don't get caught, Don't get caught,'. Guys pick on my speed all the time, but I managed to get into the end zone, and it was great."
Blue's long run in Charlotte was reminiscent of his brilliant performance in Kenan Stadium on December 8, 2007 in the NCHSAA 3-A state championship game as North Gaston's dual-threat quarterback.
On that chilly Saturday morning in Chapel Hill Blue had 271 all-purpose yards, including 192 rushing yards and multiple long runs, with John Blake and several other UNC coaches looking on approvingly with smiles on their faces from their offices in the Kenan Football Center.
"It's exhausting (making a long run)," Blue said. "Your energy and your blood is flowing. You're running and running, but it's exhausting.
"The open field........As a football player, you don't get many chances to run 60, 70 yards full-speed that often. So to do that, it's exhausting but it's also exciting."
"That's A.J. Blue we're not used to seeing, with 70-yard touchdowns, but A.J. Blue did great," said Morris. "That's great things in the future for us if we can get 80-yard touchdowns like this. It's great things."
Morris's response to Blue's big play in Charlotte is indicative of a unique bond that the two have developed over the past year.
Clearly this is a situation where Blue and Morris could share some mutual animosity given they're competing for the top spot in the UNC backfield and all that comes with it, including national exposure and the chance to prove yourself as worthy of potential NFL riches, as Bernard did in his Tar Heel career.
But Blue and Morris are two humble young men with a great deal of class and no hard feelings towards one another.
"When we get in the locker room, I tell them, 'Great job,'" Blue said of his fellow UNC backs. "It's been great. It's never, 'I'm going to get the starting job. I did better than you today.'"
"It's always a competition, but there's no hard feelings in-between the competition. There's no hate or anything of that nature. We're really great friends. We hang out. He (Morris) comes to my house," Blue added.
Blue and Morris realize how each of them are going to get their fair share of carries in UNC's offense with its aim to run 80-plus offensive plays per game.
Thus, they've become comrades instead of rivals as they prepare to become partners in crime as North Carolina's featured backs this coming season.
"The family here, it becomes more here than your actual family, because we're here every day. We're competing against each other. We're helping each other. We're coaching each other. We actually follow each other. Me and Romar's relationship is going really well," Blue replied.
Blue's long, strange journey to the top of the North Carolina depth chart at running back is certainly a interesting tale, but it's also a tale of perseverance, hard work, and patience.
It's a journey that's culminated in Blue becoming one of the undisputed leaders, along with Renner, in North Carolina's offense heading into his final training camp at UNC this summer.
"He (Blue) is the leader on the offense right now. Him and Bryn are probably the two guys that have stepped up (the most) and been leaders," said Fedora.
"Me and A.J. are really close," added Renner. "This is our fifth year here, so we've really taken a leadership role. He's leading all the skill guys, doing a great job in the weight room and things like that to pay dividends out here (on the field)."
While Blue, as one of the few remaining fifth-year seniors on the UNC roster, is clearly a leader heading into the summer, Morris is also looking to step up his own leadership and prove to his teammates that he's ready to carry some of that load.
"I think I can become a leader at my position. It's doing what I do," Morris said.
"I've just been learning. Every day is a learning opportunity for the whole offense. Me, I'm just trying to get better, mastering my craft. Working on my speed and agility, things to become a better back."
"I just think my patience as a running back, understanding the game more. Understanding what my players on the same side of the ball are doing. I think just reading the defenses and all that kind of stuff has really made me progress as a running back," Morris added.
Both Blue and Morris---as well as their quarterback and head coach----agree that pass blocking is going to be a real key for each of them this fall.
While headlines for running backs come from long runs and big rushing totals, it is often mistakes in communication or execution from running backs in pass protection that lead to headline-making plays for opposing defenses, such as sacks and forced fumbles.
Now that they're the featured backs, there simply can't be mistakes in the pass blocking element of the offense on Blue and Morris's part, lest they put Renner at risk.
"We busted way too many times in pass protection this spring, and we've got to get much better in that area," said Fedora.
"They're going to have to pass protect," added Renner of Blue and Morris.
"They're going to have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield and run between the tackles. Coach (Randy) Jordan does a great job of making those guys be complete backs. That's a great job that our coaching staff does."
Morris elaborated on how Coach Jordan has helped him better read defenses and get more familiar with the types of blocks he'll be having to make to keep defenders off of Renner this fall.
"I feel like I've become a better pass blocker," Morris said. "My footwork is getting better, and I'm able to read the defense more. That's a thing I kind of had trouble with last season---I wasn't able to read the defense as much---but I think Coach Jordan is helping me read the defense more."
Another important key for Blue and Morris in training camp is tempo, taking advantage of all the reps they got in the spring as well as all the lessons they've learned in position meetings to move more quickly and without as much thought on the field.
"Two guys with experience (in the offensive backfield), that's huge for us," said Renner.
"A leader in Blue, and Romar with all the speed. Having those guys back (this summer) are going to really pick up the pace."
Through repetition and muscle memory, Blue and Morris can help speed up North Carolina's already high-octane offense by executing runs, blocks, and pass routes with better efficiency, while also being in position to run back to the ball and execute the next play more quickly.
With their offensive coordinator more focused on running the next play than over-analyzing the play before it, Blue and Morris will be pressed to have short memories and continue grinding on from play to play as quickly as they possibly can in camp.
"We know the offense more. We're more familiar with the offense, so we'll be able to move faster," Blue said. "Everything is anticipated. We know how fast we need to move. We know what's expected. We've definitely gotten a lot of reps. And that shows that we're more comfortable, and that shows that we actually know what we're doing."
"It's fun (playing in the spread offense)," Blue continued. "As fast as we move, (Coach Anderson) teaches us to do and forget. Just keep going. And I think that's one of the most important things in football. Because you can't move forward if you're still holding onto the past."
"I think the speed of our offense and the speed of his coaching style has really helped us (prepare for the upcoming season)."
"Last year we ran the offense. We knew exactly what to do, but we didn't know the (finer) points and the little things. This year we're trying to focus on little things and play faster," Morris added. "(I'm trying to) utlilize my speed, get me the ball in space, and just help the offense out the best I can."
By moving more quickly, Blue and Morris can really help the UNC offense wear down its opponents, which was evident in some of North Carolina's more impressive offensive efforts a year ago, such as the win over Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill.
"The Virginia Tech game. In that game we're probably on the 20 (yard line), and I'm exhausted. But I look over at the (Hokie) defensive linemen and linebackers, and they're more exhausted than me. They can't breathe. They're gasping for air. And that kind of gave me an extra boost to see that what we're doing is actually hurting them," Blue said.
"Just the speed of our offense is definitely going to give us an opportunity to win a lot of games."
"We've just got to make a great effort at it (this summer)," Morris added. "We have big things planned for this season, and we're trying to start the season off good this year."
Along with the chance to step up and be a featured part of the UNC offense, Morris was also given a chance this past spring as a punt returner.
While he had his share of struggles, including multiple fumbles, Morris is the kind of player with his speed that could potentially break off a huge punt return, as Bernard did several times at UNC.
"I'm trying to take over for Gio a little bit at the punt return area. Yeah, it's something I've been working on in the offseason, trying to get better and better," Morris said.
"It's a good chance (for Morris)," Blue added. "We always like to have a running back back there to make some big plays (in the punt return game). He's definitely got a chance once he gets comfortable. Punt returner is an uncomfortable position for most people. But once you get comfortable with it, I feel he'll be pretty good."
But without question, Blue and Morris's biggest roles for the 2013 Tar Heels will be rushers.
And with training camp on the horizon, Blue is following a simple, time-tested philosophy.
"Four or five yards, every carry. We really put much emphasis on that," he said.