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November 3, 2011
Sammy: In Reach of a Milestone
Tradition sells, especially when it's achieved through some form of success.
So it's no surprise that North Carolina's fans, coaches and players have been caught up in redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard's pursuit of 1,000 yards rushing this season.
When Bernard reaches that milestone, it will be a step toward re-establishing one of great traditions of Tar Heel football. Between 1969 and 1997, UNC backs accumulated 1,000 yards or more 20 times.
The list of those players include all-time greats like Don McCauley, Sammy Johnson, James "Boom Boom'' Betterson, Mike Voight, "Famous'' Amos Lawrence, Kelvin Bryant, Ethan Horton, Derrick Fenner, Kenard Martin, Natrone Means, Curtis Johnson, Leon Johnson and Jonathan Linton.
It was Linton, now a special agent in the diplomatic security sector of the U.S. State Department, who last cracked the barrier with 1,004 yards in 1997. Linton topped 1,000 yards in the regular-season finale against Duke that season with a career-high 199-yard rushing effort.
The Tar Heels counted down Linton's yardage on the sideline and removed him from the game as soon as he moved past 1,000 yards.
Bernard needs just 35 yards against the Wolfpack to join UNC's 1,000-yard club. So even with the major focus this week on beating arch rival N.C. State, UNC interim coach Everett Withers felt Bernard's quest was significant enough to address the subject.
"I think it's important,'' Withers said of Bernard's quest. "It's part of the Carolina history with the 1,000-yard backs who have come before Gio.
"It's important to our offense that he gets that goal and he continues past 1,000.''
Withers noted several benefits of having a 1,000-yard rusher. He said it's a source of pride for the offensive line and because opponents have to respect the run it takes pressure off the quarterback.
There's also an advantage to having 1,000-yard rushers in recruiting, according to Withers.
"I think it's important when kids know you'll turn around and hand it to your tailback 20-some odd times and let him get yards,'' Withers said. "I think that's important anytime you're recruiting.''
There have been various reasons for UNC's inability to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for more than a decade. But injuries have no doubt played a key role in that failure.
The most recent example was last season involving Johnny White. White piled up 720 yards through the first nine games before a fractured clavicle prematurely ended his season.
Others Tar Heel backs like Ronnie McGill, Shaun Draughn and Andre Williams whose pursuit of 1,000 yards were derailed by injuries in one year or another.
Many of us in Kenan Stadium last Saturday for the Wake Forest were afraid Bernard's pursuit of 1,000 yards had been halted when he went down at the end of a run late in the third period. Bernard's left leg was bent back in an awkward position and he stayed on the ground several minutes while medical personnel attended to him.
Fortunately, it was only a scare. Bernard quickly returned to action and finished off a 154-yard day against the Deacons.
So when Bernard finally does reach 1,000 yards sometime Saturday, it should be appreciated as a special achievement.
But it's also the start of re-establishing a tradition that sells.