A.J. Blue and Romar Morris aren't focused on trying to replace Gio Bernard in North Carolina's backfield.
With the do-everything tailback headed for the NFL draft, Blue and Morris have spent spring practices working to be first in line to lead the Tar Heels' ground attack this fall. The duo will get an audition during Saturday's annual spring game, which could leave an impression on the coaching staff heading into the summer and eventually training camp.
"You don't necessarily have to play like Gio but you've got to do whatever you've got to do to help the team win," Blue said. "We're getting better every day. We're coaching each other and competing against each other. The experience from last year has given us an advantage for the spring."
They'll need that considering the Tar Heels' success in coach Larry Fedora's second year could depend on how well they make up for Bernard's absence. Bernard ran for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns, scored five receiving touchdowns and returned a pair of punts for TDs — one in the final seconds of a game to end a 5-year losing streak to rival North Carolina State.
When Bernard missed two-plus games with a knee injury early in the year, both Blue and Morris proved they could thrive in a bigger role.
Blue, a rising senior who was second on the team with 10 touchdowns, started those two games and ran for 106 yards and a score in a loss at Wake Forest. Morris ran for 70 yards and a score against the Demon Deacons, then flashed his big-play potential with 44- and 50-yard TD catches in a loss at eventual Sugar Bowl champion Louisville.
Morris, a rising sophomore from Salisbury, said those experiences bring confidence for both players.
"Coming into the season, we had to have confidence playing in the offense," Morris said. "When we know what we're doing in the offense, the offense moves faster. That's the key thing Coach Fedora preaches: if you know what you're doing and you know your assignments, then you play faster ... and you move the ball faster, then you score more points."
The two have been rotating with the starters during spring practices and will represent the most high-profile position battle during Saturday's game, where the Tar Heels will also unveil new uniforms for next year.
Fedora said the two "are better than they were at the end of the season." And running backs coach Randy Jordan — also a former UNC back — said he expects Blue and Morris can take advantage of playing in the high-scoring spread offense.
"I think the future's bright for them," Jordan said. "With the system we have, you have to cover so much blade of the grass on the field — from end line to end line and sideline to sideline — so there's going to be natural seams in the defense that you've got to run. We want to make you chase the ball, and then we're going to hit you in the face and try to get the ball north and south."
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Blue is the bigger back, though Jordan said the 5-10, 185-pound Morris is running more physically now than during his freshman season. Morris had a big performance in last year's spring game, running for two touchdowns then adding a 21-yard scoring pass all in the first half.
Blue, a native of Dallas, N.C., has had a long journey to get here. He was a wildcat quarterback as a true freshman in 2009, then lined up at tailback against Georgia Southern before tearing three ligaments in his left knee to miss the rest of the season. He redshirted the following year as he worked his way back before returning to full-time duty last season.
Things will get tougher for both players, too. Fedora praised freshman tailback Khris Francis for his work during spring drills. In addition, incoming rookie T.J. Logan — The Associated Press player of the year for North Carolina after running for 510 yards and eight touchdowns in a state championship game — will join the mix when training camp gets rolling in August.
"We've just got to keep working to get better," Blue said. "Me and Romar talk every day. We don't try to fill the void of Gio's absence. We're here to help the team win. This isn't about A.J. Blue and Romar Morris. It's about the Tar Heel offense and the Tar Heel football team."