Morris steps up in Bernard’s absence

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Romar Morris runs down field in the fourth quarter. Morris would go on to score during the play to put the Tar Heels in a position to possibly win the game.

Ever since preseason All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard left North Carolina’s season opener Sept. 1 with an injured knee, his absence and its impact on the Tar Heels’ success has been all the buzz.

But in head coach Larry Fedora’s postgame press conference after Saturday’s 39-34 loss in Louisville, Bernard, who didn’t even make the trip, was barely mentioned at all.

That’s because, for now, UNC has what it considers to be the next best thing keeping Bernard’s backfield spot warm.

Junior tailback A.J. Blue started in Bernard’s place against Wake Forest and on Saturday as Bernard missed the games because of continued knee discomfort.

But redshirt freshman Romar Morris has made sure that when he gets touches, he makes them count.

“We haven’t missed a beat,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.

“Obviously, losing one of the best backs in the country, it’s tough. But Romar has done a great job stepping into that role. You can honestly say he single-handedly kept us in that ball game. It was unbelievable what he did on Saturday.”

While playing against the Cardinals, Morris had five receptions for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put UNC on the board before halftime.

On the ground, he tacked on 23 yards rushing and a blocked punt on special teams.

Offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper didn’t expect Bernard’s injury, nor did he think the Tar Heels would have to count on Blue and Morris as much as they have so far this season.

What’s not surprising to him is the way Morris has shined in his new role.

“He showed it in the spring game, he showed it in practices and training camp. All he needs is an opportunity and he can make plays happen,” Cooper said.

“He’s been one of the guys who has built a good relationship with his offensive line. He’s showing what he can do when given an opportunity.”

Morris has said he looks up to Bernard and uses his teammate as motivation for his own success.

And Renner said he is convinced that kind of relationship aids Morris on football field.

“I think Romar has learned a lot from Gio over the two years that he’s been here,” Renner said. “They’ve been kind of joined at the hip, so it doesn’t surprise me that Romar is playing so well.”

In Monday’s weekly press conference, Fedora said he was hopeful Bernard would make his return Saturday when UNC plays East Carolina in Kenan Stadium, but he added that it will be a wait-and-see situation.

“It’s killing (Bernard) not to be out there,” Renner said. “I came home from the game and he was almost distraught that he wasn’t there to help us … But when he’s ready, he’s going to be ready.”

Until then, Fedora has a plan to keep the impact of his absence minimal, and it includes continuing to put the ball in Morris’ hands.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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