After leaving BYU, spending nine months determinedly becoming eligible to play, joining Utah's program and quickly learning the defensive scheme, linebacker Francis Bernard trotted onto the field in the fourth quarter of the Utes' season-opening game last Thursday.
And then he ran the wrong way, blowing his assignment on the first defensive play of the second phase of his college football career.
“I messed up, super bad,” Bernard said this week, smiling as he detailed his first action in a game since November 2016.
Bernard recorded his first official Ute statistic on the game’s final play, credited with an assisted tackle on Weber State’s routine handoff. That’s how it started, for a player who’s expected to be a dependable backup this season and a likely starter as a senior in 2019, when the Utes will be replacing two senior linebackers. And that’s the ending Bernard wants, having “dreamed of coming here for the longest time,” he said.
Utah didn't offer him a scholarship in his Herriman High School days, before he served a church mission and enrolled at BYU in 2015. Bernard played well, offensively and defensively, for the Cougars in two losses to Utah. And now he's a Ute, as of three weeks ago when he was cleared to practice.
FACING THE UTES
As a BYU running back and linebacker, Francis Bernard twice played against his current Utah team:
2015 Las Vegas Bowl • Seven carries, 58 yards, including a 29-yard run.
2016, at Rice-Eccles Stadium • Eight tackles, one interception, one forced fumble.
Bernard joined a deep linebacking corps, in a scheme that employs two of them — usually, Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. The positions are interchangeable; junior Donovan Thompson is considered the No. 3 linebacker, followed by Bernard, who moved ahead of redshirt freshman Devin Lloyd by working hard to learn the defense and blend into the program. He was the last player to leave the practice field Monday, staying after freshman quarterback Jack Tuttle completed his usual, extra work.
Bernard has made a good impression, with coach Kyle Whittingham saying, “He's been on an upward trajectory ever since he got here.”
Getting onto the field for about a dozen plays in the fourth quarter (in addition to playing on the punt-return team) vs. Weber State was enough to “help my eyes readjust, help my body react” in a game after a year out of football, Bernard said.
Facing a BYU suspension for the 2017 season for honor code issues, Bernard said he could have stayed in school and redshirted in football last season. Instead, disappointed that his Cougar tenure was being disrupted — “I felt like I was going to have a breakout year,” he said — he made plans to transfer, after isolating himself in his grandparents' home and pondering his future.
“I had to make a decision for myself,” he said, “just because there were so many people in my ear.”
His choice: “Take my talents elsewhere.”
That phrase came in the only moment of the interview when Bernard came even remotely close to self-promotion. Well, that’s not counting the declaration of how he “became a freakin' astronomer” this summer, having completed the most demanding course of his online studies through Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz.
Pointing to the sky, he launched into a discussion of retrograde planets, and how they appear to be moving backward. Bernard's football career is going forward again, or so he hopes.
He was an impactful player for BYU as a sophomore linebacker in 2016, having moved from running back when Jamaal Williams returned to the school. Bernard was BYU's No. 3 tackler that season, behind Fred Warner and Butch Pau'u, but was suspended for the Poinsettia Bowl, apparently due to charges of noise disturbance and disorderly conduct in separate incidents.
In October, having left BYU, Bernard was arrested on suspicion of DUI. He was fined $1,420 and sentenced to 48 hours of community service on a conviction of impaired driving, Utah County Justice Court records show.
With his family’s support, he persisted in his online course work, needing an associate degree to become eligible at Utah. Bernard impressed Whittingham by completing the necessary credits in early August. “There were plenty of times in my road where I wanted to quit,” Bernard said. “I felt like a lot of people doubted me when I decided to go that route, just because it’s not an easy task. I’m glad I did it, because I learned a lot and I’ve become a better person for it.”
After a summer when there was considerable interest in Bernard’s status as a potential Ute, he’s unlikely to become a major factor in 2018, when Utah will conclude the regular season against BYU in November. Made available for interviews Monday for the first time, Bernard received only one request. He’ll be a bigger story next year, when Utah’s opening game will mark his return to Provo.
UTAH AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
When • Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPNews