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BYU football: Loss of Francis Bernard a big blow to the Cougar defense

PROVO — The BYU defense had been practicing without assumed starting linebacker Francis Bernard for a while, and now will have to make do without him for the entire 2017 season.

The Cougars released information just prior to Thursday's open practice that Bernard will redshirt due to "personal reasons (and) will be a junior for the Cougars when he returns to the field in 2018."

Bernard will take part in all team meetings, practices and other activities for the rest of the season and was present at Thursday's practice session.

Losing any assumed starter on the defense is a big blow, but losing Bernard may be a bigger one than otherwise. Last season saw the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Herriman product start all 12 regular-season games while tallying 80 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions. He was a noted playmaker and a key part in a linebacking corps many regard as potentially becoming one of the best in program history.

"Obviously Francis is my boy and the fact that he has to redshirt sucks," said linebacker Fred Warner. "But we have players in that room who are going to step up and make plays for us."

BYU coach Kalani Sitake mentioned several options that can play in place of Bernard, starting with junior Adam Pulsipher, who has seen most of the reps in Bernard's place throughout fall camp. Others mentioned included sophomore Johnny Tapusoa and senior Matt Hadley, who has spent most of fall camp playing at safety.

"Hadley can play a lot of different positions," Sitake said of the 6-foot, 205-pounder. "He has so much athleticism. When we tried him at running back he got injured, so that kind of stopped his progress there. I think he's struggling to keep the weight off, so it just makes sense to let him eat freely, get big, and then play linebacker. That's kind of like my model."

Others mentioned were freshman Isaiah Kaufusi, Will Sedgwick and Christian Folau, along with junior Morgan Unga.

"There's enough bodies. It's just (about) getting enough playing time to get them ready in that position, specifically," Sitake said.

When asked if he'd been anticipating, and subsequently preparing for the loss of Bernard, Sitake generalized his answer, stating, "There's always got to be a plan to try and develop depth. … There's always something that adds to the game that you have to rely on depth and that's what we try and do as a staff — establish more depth in our program, and this is one of those moments."

Bernard was present during Thursday's practice and will provide a positive presence throughout the season, although he won't be seeing any time on the playing field.

"The fact that he is still around means we will still have his presence here and we lift each other up," Warner said. "Any time we face any adversity, we are all there for each other. We're a tight-knit group."

As for the remaining group, Warner talked positively about the other options, mentioning true freshman Chaz Ah You as an option who can step up.

"It's next man up, and we have guys who can fill his spot and make plays for us," Warner said. "But (Francis) will be back and he'll be better."