Even before Carolina Panthers linebacker Andre Smith arrived at North Carolina, he knew who Giovani Bernard was.
Not necessarily because both played their high school ball in Florida, though.
It was more about the play.
“I’ve probably seen it like 100,000 times,” Smith said Thursday. “They love that play. It’s crazy.”
The play, of course, is one of the more storied in recent UNC football: Bernard, now a Cincinnati Bengals running back whose team faces the Panthers this Sunday in Charlotte, had a spectacular, game-winning punt return with less than 30 seconds on the clock against rival N.C. State.
Bernard left Chapel Hill after that season and was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Bengals, but that play has lived on in local football lore.
“That’s something for North Carolina that I loved that I was able to do that,” Bernard said Thursday.
And while Bernard is excited to be back playing in North Carolina this weekend — “I hope a bunch of people are in UNC jerseys, that would be pretty sweet,” he said — this Panthers defense will be determined not to allow another epic Bernard touchdown.
Like the one Bernard had the last time the Panthers and Bengals met.
Bernard, at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, had a key play in that eventual 37-37 tie in 2014 (the first draw in Panthers franchise history). He took one cut to the left side of the field and sprinted 89 yards for a touchdown.
It’s still the longest play of his professional career.
“Obviously the biggest thing is you just want to try to create explosive plays, whether that’s through the air or through the ground,” Bernard said. “The biggest thing is to just keep your feet going. You can’t really anticipate big plays — they just kind of come.”
This weekend, with Cincinnati starter Joe Mixon out with an injury, Bernard will have every opportunity to break off more of those big plays. But if ever there was a bad time to be a running back against this vaunted Panthers defense, it’s the week after a letdown.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2, the Panthers snapped their 21-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard opposing rusher (Tevin Coleman had 107). And while Bernard had 22 total touches — 18 carries, four receptions — for 157 total yards the last time these teams met, Carolina’s defense is especially motivated coming off a loss.
Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said earlier this week that the defense as a whole has been working on correcting the mistakes from last week, and that starts with stopping Bernard.
“He’s good, man. What we’ve gotta do, man, is we’ve all got to rally and make gang tackles and get him on the ground,” Short said. “You can’t think one person is going to get him on the ground — we all have to rally and go for strip attempts and make him go east and west.”
The trick with Bernard, who has always been quicker rather than overpoweringly physical, is limiting his receptions out of the backfield.
Sort of like Christian McCaffrey, whom the Panthers employ in a similar fashion.
For his career, McCaffrey averages 3.9 yards per rush and 8.0 yards per reception. And while Bernard has played essentially four times as many games as McCaffrey, his numbers are nearly identical: 4.2 yards per rush and 8.9 yards per reception.
“I think it’s something similar to Christian, where you can get him in space. You can get it to him in the open field and just let him create,” Smith said. “Flex him out empty as a wide receiver, match him up on a linebacker, and he’s a little bit of a mismatch there — not on our linebackers, of course — but most. He has that type of skillset.”
Smith and Bernard both were back in Chapel Hill for the football team’s annual Freak Show recruiting event this summer, but Smith said he didn’t realize at the time they’d be competing against one another later this year.
And while the idea of a North Carolina homecoming is sweet for Bernard, and while he’d certainly love to bust out a 90-yarder as his new career long, he’ll more than have his work cut out for him.
That sweet spot he has for UNC football doesn’t quite extend westward to the Panthers.
“For sure I try to keep up with them. They’re not doing too hot, but it’s part of football,” Bernard said. “I’m always going to rep my team no matter how they’re doing.
“You know, it’s pretty cool to come back and I’m playing Carolina, but I’m obviously focused on winning here.”