CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina tailback Gio Bernard is eager to make his early jump to the NFL.
The sophomore announced Friday he would enter next spring's draft after a big year in which he ranked among the nation's top rushers and punt returners to earn All-America honors.
"I didn't want to base my projections or where I was (in mock drafts)," Bernard said during a news conference. "I think it was moreso that I wanted to move on to the next step in life and fulfill a dream."
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound tailback led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing, scoring, all-purpose yards and punt-return average. He was a first-team all-ACC selection the past two years, and was a third-team All-American by The Associated Press earlier this week.
A native of Boca Raton, Fla., Bernard is draft-eligible because he has been out of high school for three seasons. He missed the 2010 season with a knee injury and also missed almost three full games this year with another knee injury, but said fear of another injury wasn't a major factor in his decision.
"It didn't really weigh that much," Bernard said. "As a football player, you take risks. Playing the game is a risk in itself. Those things happen. You don't really have control of those things. ... Those are things that you can't really think about it. You just have to go into it with an open mind and just play the game."
Bernard said he planned to come back to earn his degree in spring 2014.
Bernard entered the season with questions about how he would fit in new coach Larry Fedora's spread offense. But he ran for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns, ranked 11th nationally by averaging 122.8 yards per game and led the country by averaging 16.4 yards per punt return.
He scored a league-best 19 touchdowns, including two on punt returns. That included a 74-yard return for the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left to beat North Carolina State 43-35 in October, snapping a five-year losing streak in the rivalry.
"We've always prided ourselves on being balanced," Fedora said. "I just knew that I was excited about the opportunity of having a player of his caliber. At the time, I really didn't know how good Gio was because I hadn't seen him on film.
"I don't like to make decisions on guys when they're in shorts. But in the first two days of spring ball, we were in shorts and I knew right then how special he was and what he was going to be in the offense."
Bernard tore his right anterior cruciate ligament on his third day of preseason practice in 2010, but returned a year later to run for a UNC freshman record 1,253 yards while becoming the first Tar Heel to run for more than 1,000 yards since 1997.
Bernard leaves UNC with 2,481 yards rushing in two seasons, good for 10th in the school record book.
"I don't want to say it's not about money because it's a business and he's going to be making a living and that plays a part in it," Fedora said. "But I think for him, it's more about fulfilling a dream. ... I dreamed about it as a kid. I didn't go very far, but he has this opportunity and I'm ready to live through him in this opportunity."