Checking in with UNC's A.J. Blue: Part I

North Carolina’s offense will have a new identity in 2013, as former tailback Giovani Bernard, the face of the program in 2012, decided to leave early for the NFL draft. His lead blocker, Outland Trophy finalist Jonathan Cooper, is also gone. Those within the program, though, are confident the Heels can be just as successful without them.

Enter running back A.J. Blue.

He was second on the team in rushing last year with 433 yards, and had 10 total touchdowns. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Blue got his first career start at Wake Forest and rushed 19 times for a career-high 106 yards and a touchdown.

He’s looking for far more in 2013 as UNC’s No. 1 back, but first he has to earn that spot. I caught up with Blue recently to get his take on this season.

Here are the highlights of our conversation:

How much did you talk to Giovani before he made his decision to leave, and once he decided to do that, what went through your head?

A.J. Blue: We didn’t really talk too much about it. Gio’s a real humble person. The NFL was never something he decided to talk about amongst a lot of people. If we did talk about it, it was a talk that came down to a decision he would have to make with his family. It was never just me and him talking strictly about him leaving. When I did find out he was leaving, I told him congratulations and I looked at it as a positive for me and him. I felt like his draft stock wasn’t going to get any higher than it already is this year, and I also felt like with him leaving and it being my last season, it was also an opportunity for me.

What are you concentrating on most this offseason in order to be the player you need to be and want to be for UNC?

AJB: I’m just concentrating on my weight. I lost like 20 pounds last summer. That was of course when we were doing heavy running and all of that kind of stuff. I went from about 235 to 215, 212, and I’ve come back up to 220 now. I plan on being around 210, and I just want to be durable. I want to be able to run the ball 10 or 15 times, just like Gio did. I think the thing I’m working on most is just my speed and agility.

How concerned are you that Jonathan Cooper isn’t going to be blocking this year?

AJB: I’m not that concerned. The guys we have coming back, we have James Hurst, who obviously is one of the best tackles in the ACC, I think in the country. This will be his fourth year in a row starting. We have Landon Turner who will be back at guard. He’s a great guy. He got a lot of experience this year. We’ve got [Russell] Bodine at center, this will be his second or third year starting, so he has a lot of experience. I think the experience thing we have is pretty good. Guys who will be replacing Coop will be molded into the type of offensive linemen we need.

Check back tomorrow for Blue's take on the competition this spring and his lofty goals.