Even before the upcoming reunion with his former BYU teammates, Utah linebacker Francis Bernard was hoping for a moment that would propel him into his senior season of 2019.
That opportunity came Saturday at Colorado, where Bernard played a major role in a 30-7 victory that helped give Utah a Pac-12 South championship.
In the context of Bernard’s two-school college career, his 10-tackle performance was unsurprising and unexpected. Anyone who watched him during his 2016 season as a BYU linebacker could have seen this coming. Yet he had played only a minor role for the Utes prior to Saturday, when he became needed after senior Chase Hansen was ejected for targeting in the first quarter.
“It was fun to get out there and play,” Bernard said.
Some observers figured Bernard would become a starter at some point this season, but they were underestimating senior Cody Barton and overlooking how Utah’s standard scheme uses only two linebackers. Bernard had made only 10 tackles through 10 games, not even getting on the field in two contests.
Even so, Utah's coaches spoke highly of his progress at various checkpoints. In early November, he became Utah's No. 3 linebacker, playing in an occasional three-backer alignment and filling in at either spot. Then came Saturday's performance, making coach Kyle Whittingham look ahead to next year when Hansen and Barton will have graduated.
“Francis Bernard is a tremendous player; I think you saw that today,” Whittingham said.
Last week, Whittingham had said, “He's been improving ever since he got here.”
Bernard intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter of a rout at UCLA in late October, a play that was “a little reassuring, just to know that all right, I can still play football,” he said.
He played far more than usual at Arizona State the following week, making five tackles. “When the opportunities were given, I was able to make the most of them,” Bernard said after that game. “It was fun. I'm excited. Next year will be good; the way we finish out this year will kind of carry over how next year goes.”
His showing at Colorado was even more encouraging, as a major advancement in a season of transition for the Herriman High School alumnus. “It’s been a good learning experience for me,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from Chase and Cody and even Donavan [Thompson], even just the other linebackers in the room; I’ve learned a ton. Just getting involved a little bit has been fun, knowing how great the defense is.”
Bernard sat out the 2017 season. Facing a BYU suspension for Honor Code issues, he could have stayed in school and redshirted but made plans to transfer. Bernard completed an associate degree online from an Arizona junior college, becoming eligible to join Utah’s practices in August. He has followed BYU’s season from a distance, mainly to keep track of his friend, linebacker Sione Takitaki.
Returning to a backup role for the Utes, Bernard will play in his third Utah-BYU game with a second team at a second position. As a freshman running back in 2015, he was the Cougars' leading rusher with seven carries for 58 yards in a 35-28 loss in the Las Vegas. Having moved to linebacker, he record eight tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in September 2016, when the Cougars lost 20-19 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Now he’s a Ute, thriving on a campus where he “dreamed of coming, for the longest time,” as he said in September. And he’s scheduled to face his old team twice, Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium and in August in Provo. In between, the Utes will play Washington or Washington State on Nov. 30 in the Pac-12 championship game, and Bernard helped them get there.