UNC redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard has been working hard this spring to recover from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2010 season, and the Florida native says he's ahead of schedule in his recovery.
"Coming in as a freshman last year I was really excited but unfortunately something happened to my knee where it set me back a little bit, but now I'm just hungry," he said.
"It just makes me hungry to come back and just do what I've got to do to help my team do whatever they can do."
The UNC coaches have been trying to avoid a setback with Bernard by not putting him into certain contact situations this spring, but aside of that, he's been a regular fixture in the Tar Heel running back rotation the past few weeks.
"My knee is doing good. I'm ready to go," he said. "I've been out here running and everything. I feel fine. I felt like I was ahead of the program a little bit."
"I just run, run, run---just knowing that my knee is perfectly fine."
"Really for the coaches, the limitations were just really no contact-type stuff," Bernard added. "I do blitz pickups and things like that. That kind of contact is fine."
"But the only thing is when too many people are around, when another person could fall down and could roll up under me. That's the things that we're trying to avoid."
"But other than that, I'm doing basically everything---one-on-ones, route running, running through plays, blitz pickup, two minute type things---so it's going very good right now," he continued.
"Obviously I think we're all excited about what the potential is there," said UNC head coach Butch Davis of Bernard.
"And it's so tempting. You'd love to throw him in a scrimmage. You'd like to unwrap the package and see how good the package actually is, but he's doing extraordinarily well."
"And there's no question that after Saturday, giving him another four months of total rehab and running and lifting that we'll feel good about the decision about not exposing him this spring," Davis added.
Bernard admits that one of the first things he had to do when he returned to the UNC practice fields this spring was overcoming the mental barrier of his injury and the fear that it could happen again.
He says that part was pretty easy.
"Coming out in the first week of spring, my biggest thing was trying to get that mental part out of it, and I felt like I did that big time. I don't feel there's anything wrong with me at all," he said.
There's obviously a lot of differences between playing at the high school and college level, and one of those differences for most kids is practicing in the spring.
But coming from Florida, where football is a secular religion and high schools practice in the spring, this is nothing new for Bernard.
"Down in Florida we have spring ball, so I'm used to coming out during this time in the heat. Down in Florida you get that 90 degree weather during the spring time, so I'm used to it. It's not that big of a deal," he said.
Playing at national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Bernard got an early taste of playing at a high level.
But naturally there's been several things about the college game that he's had to pick up in a hurry---things like proper protection on blitz pickup and properly reading defenses.
"Blitz pickup, it's a little bit different, just kind of reading the defensive line more," he said. "In high school you could really see a guy coming off the line and what not---you could tell if he was blitzing or not."
"So far so good. I'm trying to pick it up, and I'm happy about it," he added. "Just going into the film room and working out with everybody, that's going to help out big-time. So just being smart about it and being ready to go is the best thing you can do."
"I know most of the plays just being in meeting rooms all the time during last year's season. (I'm) just getting back into it, just rolling into it, going out and reading the defensive line and reading the defenses has been my biggest thing so spring," Bernard added.
With three of the team's top running backs all gone, Bernard knows he's going to be expected to make a contribution in the fall.
Even with the presence of players like Ryan Houston and Hunter Furr, UNC is going to need Bernard to make some plays in 2011 for the team to reach their goals.
"Having a running game to help out is going to be a big thing and having us take that role and having that weight on our shoulders is always a good thing," he said. "For me, I've always loved to have that type of pressure on me and what not."
"Just helping out Bryn (Renner), and he's going to help us out by spreading out the field, and the O-line is going to play a big role. I'm just being smart about everything."
Individually, this spring for Bernard has been about getting back up to speed with his recovering knee, but it's also been about picking holes, holding onto the football, and being savvy about what's going on around him.
"Ball security and just creating big plays and being smart about everything is our biggest thing," he said.
"In the running back room we're just starting small, getting the plays right, knowing our calls, knowing the defense, and knowing our assignments and everything---having those things inside out is our biggest key."
Like most all of his teammates, Bernard doesn't shy away from lofty goals for the Tar Heels for the 2011 season.
"Everybody is trying to go to the ACC (Championship) and even higher, the BCS," he said.
He's looking forward to showing off his talents in front of the Kenan Stadium faithful after being unable to perform for the Tar Heels as a true freshman.
"(I'm looking forward most to showing off) probably my speed and acceleration. I know people say I'm just a little quick guy in-between tackles, but if I get out in-between those tackles and I see that hole, I'm going to hit it 100 miles per hour," he said.
"Just knowing some guys may think, 'Oh yeah, he's a little 'scat' back type of guy. He's not really going to take it for 100 (yards per game)," but hopefully I can."