PROVO — What will BYU’s defense be without Francis Bernard?
It will lose an athletic playmaker, a linebacker who had three interceptions last season including a spectacular one-handed catch in the second game at Utah last year.
Will it hurt? Of course.
Bernard, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound converted running back, will not play this year, opting for a redshirt junior year, according to a press release distributed earlier this week. This follows his suspension from the bowl game in San Diego last December.
The Salt Lake Tribune, quoting his brother James H. Bernard Jr., reported that, according to James, Francis has requested a release from BYU and would like to transfer to Utah. Neither Francis nor BYU team officials have confirmed that as of Saturday.
"Francis is contemplating some options about his future right now but at this point, it's premature regarding a decision," said BYU’s sports information director for football Brett Pyne.
Is Bernard’s brother his official spokesman? Why hasn’t Francis made his own declaration? And if he did, would he give head coach Kalani Sitake time to discuss it in more detail? Sitake would look out for Francis’ best interests and if a release is the best course, he would pull the trigger. But is it the best path? James Bernard did not respond late Friday night to a request for clarification on the release request he says his brother made.
One BYU athletic source on Saturday said it is uncertain if James is officially making a declaration for Francis or if an emotional family is blowing off steam. “They’re all frustrated,” he said.
Regardless, if Bernard transfers or stays, he will not play major college football this season and that hurts everybody but BYU’s opponents — he is that good.
As valuable as Bernard is, however, he is not infallible on the football field.
Bernard’s strength is his size, speed, range and reach as a linebacker. To be 240 pounds and be able to cover as much territory as he does as quickly as he can, is nothing to be dismissed easily. His playmaking stands out on film and opponents making game cutouts this summer have already taken notice and schemed for his prowess.
That being said, Bernard, who is a potential future NFL draft pick, does have some weaknesses if you put him alongside the elite.
For instance, Bernard needs to work on run support, making quicker decisions in coming up to stop running backs.
If you look at film of team captain and middle linebacker Butch Pau’u, you can readily see this trait in action and it is impressive. Pau’u has the instincts to naturally pick his spots, to fill in gaps as a play develops and more frequently than not, makes the right guess and will plug the gap, putting him in a position to make big plays. Bernard needs to get to that level to be elite. Although Pau’u is undersized, this ability elevates him to an outstanding college player.
Second, Bernard’s ability to drop into pass coverage, then use his speed and range to close in on the ball when it is in the air is impressive. He has great eyesight to target the trajectory and get to where he needs to be. His size then makes it easy to deliver impressive hits and punish backs and receivers. His weakness in this area is making the right reads consistently. At times, he is caught in no-man’s land, leaving secondary real estate empty. It’s an assignment thing.
BYU will address this with a myriad of options, none of which has Bernard’s size and athletic ability or experience.
This is a hybrid type position in Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defense. It is interchangeable as a linebacker body type or that of a nickel back who can play safety.
One decision is to move safety Matt Hadley, a very smart player, into Bernard’s spot. The tradeoff is Bernard’s size and speed for Hadley’s instincts and reads. Another is moving freshman four-star safety Chaz Ah You (6-2, 200) into that slot. Following BYU's open scrimmage Thursday, senior linebacker Fred Warner said both Hadley and Ah You had joined the linebackers group.
Junior Adam Pulsipher was listed as Bernard's backup heading into fall camp and is expected to see an increased role. Freshman Isaiah Kaufusi from Brighton High had an impressive series of interceptions in spring ball and could be a candidate with junior Morgan Unga.
I am told Bernard’s teammates are supportive but split on the decision for him to sit out a year. Some believe it is harsh, others say it is the right move.
On Twitter, Bernard's brother James, a former University of Utah football player, posted a criticism of BYU, that the school was using his brother's image to sell tickets and is using his appearance at fan gatherings to make people happy, yet they wouldn't let him play.
Francis Bernard should clarify this personally now that it’s become late fall camp drama that could impact focus of his team preparing for next Saturday’s opener against Portland State.
On Saturday, the team underwent a lifting session in the weight room in the morning. No coaches or players were made available for interviews.