In just his second year in a league that has devalued the running back position, Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard has earned the starting job for the Bengals, and he’s proven he’s much more than just a rusher.
A former standout at North Carolina, Bernard is the only player in the NFL this season with more than 200 rushing yards, more than 150 receiving yards and at least three rushing touchdowns.
As the Panthers prepare for a Bengals team with injuries to its receiving corps, they’ll have to worry about a shifty young running back that can make plays in the rushing and receiving games.
“Well, he’s done a tremendous job as a young guy coming in and being able to handle the NFL and all the duties of a running back,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said this week on a teleconference. “He’s been a great open-field runner, a great receiver of the ball, and he’s done a great job in protection for us. He continues to grow and he is very mature for a guy for his experience in the league.”
The Bengals will likely be without All-Pro receiver A.J. Green (toe) and receiver Marvin Jones (foot) this week. Cincinnati likes to get the ball in Bernard’s hands, and the Panthers are expecting plenty of swing passes and wheel routes designed for the second-year back.
“He’s going to do that every game, A.J. or not,” said safety Tre Boston, who played with Bernard for two years at UNC. “We expect him probably to go a little more on the swing passes this week. We have to watch out where he’s at on the field at all times and making sure he’s not one of those playmakers that gets us in trouble.”
Bernard showed his abilities in the run and pass games in his two seasons with the Tar Heels. He had at least 1,200 yards in each season and had 92 receptions for 852 yards as UNC coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense utilized Bernard’s talents in his redshirt sophomore year.
The Bengals took Bernard with the No. 37 overall pick in the second round of the 2013 draft. He was the first running back selected, but it marked the latest a team had taken a running back in any draft.
Bernard believes the versatility he showed at UNC was attractive to Cincinnati.
“Yeah, for sure. I think that’s one of the reasons I did land here is because I’m able to do that,” Bernard said. “I think the more you can do as a running back the better.”
But Bernard had an injury history. He tore his ACL in practice during his freshman year and had to redshirt. In his redshirt sophomore season he missed three games with another knee injury.
“There were no reservations that way, medically,” Lewis said. “Obviously guys who play football occasionally get injured, but he didn’t have anything that was going to be debilitating and linger and stay very long.
“We were really comfortable with him and his abilities as well as his vision, strength, and stature. What we thought was a guy who looked like he was going to be a productive NFL player.”
Former Cincinnati running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis took Bernard under his wing last season and taught him how to be a professional in the NFL, as well as some of the small details in the game, Bernard said.
But Green-Ellis is no longer with the Bengals, and Bernard is joined in the backfield by rookie Jeremy Hill, who’s considered more of a power back than the 5-foot-9 Bernard.
Just more than a year into the league, Bernard is the featured back on a playoff hopeful, because he’s able to do it all.
“When the opportunity comes you just have to take advantage of it,” Bernard said. “The opportunity came for me to take over as the running back so that’s all I can do. I’m not going to shy away from it.”
By Jonathan Jones | gosanangelo.com | October 11, 2014