SALT LAKE CITY — Utah linebacker Francis Bernard loves his new team, his new teammates, his new way of life and his new lease on life, including an opportunity to further his education at a good university and to play football for a top-tier program.
Bernard, who transferred from BYU this past summer, even loves that he can be teased about his man bun and the scruffy-looking beard on his face, which he admits while laughing is not an act of defiant protest about the stricter standards at his old school and upcoming opponent.
“This is just me being lazy,” he said.
But Bernard loves that he can be lazy with his grooming habits and still participate in school functions.
“It’s been awesome. I’ve loved every bit of it,” he said about the University of Utah. “I’m happy I’m here. I enjoy the culture here. It’s a culture that’s probably just like a whole lot of other colleges out there where people can be themselves and not have to look behind their backs and stuff.”
Though the junior linebacker has fond memories of his time at BYU, Bernard feels like Utah is a better fit.
“There’s just more of a homey feeling. Everyone can be themselves. That’s my favorite part,” Bernard said. “I can come here and let loose and be the person I want to be and hang out with all these guys who do the same exact thing.”
The former Herriman High star’s rocky path from the Y. to the U. has been well documented. After his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Atlanta, Bernard played as a running back for the Cougars as a freshman (334 yards, seven touchdowns) and then made an even bigger impact as a sophomore after switching to linebacker (80 tackles, three interceptions).
That was the good part. Unfortunately, there was also the not-so-good part.
Bernard sat out the 2017 season for personal reasons and was subsequently arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in Oct. 17. He was cited by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office for driving without a license and for investigation of failing to register his vehicle or having an expired registration.
Faced with potential honor code issues, Bernard had already been granted his request to be released from BYU. Coach Kalani Sitake said he hoped his former player would find “the best place for him” and expressed that he cared about the young man.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, also a former BYU guy, was more than willing to give the 6-foot, 236-pound athlete a second chance.
“It’s great to have him in the program — a real great effort on his part to get himself eligible and where he needed to be to be able to join us,” Whittingham said shortly after Bernard joined the team this fall after earning his associate’s degree and meeting unspecified requirements.
“He had some work to do to get here and he busted his rear end and got it all done.”
BYU’s loss was Utah’s gain, something that will likely be even more prevalent when he gets more playing time after senior studs Chase Hansen and Cody Barton move on.
Bernard showed how valuable he can be last Saturday, making 10 tackles while filling in for Hansen after the linebacker was ejected for a targeting call against Colorado.
“Francis Bernard is a tremendous player,” Whittingham said. “I think you saw that (Saturday).”
Hansen was proud of how Bernard “balled out” in his place.
“I wasn’t surprised because that’s Francis. That’s the depth we have. That’s the kind of player he is,” Hansen said. “I wasn’t worried when I went out because I knew who was behind me. He showed what he can do and what he’s going to do in the future.”
During this season of thanks, Bernard is grateful to be tutored by a couple of top-notch linebackers in Hansen and Barton. They’ve been impressed by him, too.
“I knew he was a baller. I knew he was a physical dude, a smart football player,” Hansen said. “I was curious how he was going to handle things because Cody and I felt pretty confident about what we can do on the field, but he’s been an incredible teammate. He’s been an awesome friend and it’s been awesome to feed off him and learn from him, too.”
Barton was encouraged by how quickly Bernard learned the entire defense — from the dual-linebacker set to responsibilities of the D-line and the defensive backs. The former Brighton High standout is glad he’s on his side of the field now and he knows Ute fans feel the same.
“I think for the fans, it’s a cool experience saying, ‘We got this guy and he’s balling out.' Know what I mean?” Barton said.
This Saturday will be the junior’s first chance to pad up and play against his former team. Bernard will also get a crack at BYU as a senior next fall.
“I’ve kept tabs on some of the players down there, down south, just to see how they’ve been doing,” he said. “I’ll occasionally check in on their score on Saturdays.”
Bernard remains great friends with BYU senior Sione Takitaki. He smiled and admitted the two have had some exchanges leading up to Saturday’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“It’s all been friendly competition (saying) ‘Best of luck and we’ll just see who comes out on top,’” Bernard said. “Overall it’s going to be an exciting game. That’s what I think. That’s what we both think.”
Though this rivalry game comes the week before Utah’s first appearance in the Pac-12 championship game (the Utes are two-touchdown favorites vs. BYU and have won seven straight in the series) Bernard said his team is dialed in on the foes from a valley away.
“We’re prepping just like any other week. We’re not looking past these guys,” Bernard said. “We have something going on next week, but we’re definitely putting all our focus on this week. We’re going to work hard and hopefully take care of business on Saturday.”
Bernard was jokingly asked if there are any BYU players he’s looking forward to hitting.
“I’ve got a few people,” he said, chuckling, “but I’m not going to name people.”
Barton smiled thinking about the bantering that’s going to go on between Bernard and the Cougars, but Hansen doesn’t think it will get out of hand. He grinned when asked if he’s giving some helpful tips that will help the Utes against BYU (not that they’ve needed any in recent years).
“More than anything he understands that we’re just going to do us,” Hansen said. “You try not to focus on the other guys too much, but he’s got a very unique perspective on the other guys.”
While some BYU faithful might feel like he betrayed his old school by transferring to the dreaded Utes, Bernard said he hasn’t received much guff about the transition. It helps, admittedly, because he is not on social media. A relative did tell him about some negative feedback.
“Overall, I felt like the fans and just the BYU community in general were super supportive in my decision, although it was a rival school,” Bernard said. “They were just happy I found somewhere I could go to school and continue my career. …
“I don’t want to look like … Hey, he’s just coming to Utah because he’s trying to betray his people.”
Bernard’s parents and grandparents now live in South Jordan, but the family is originally from California so he didn’t have strong feelings for BYU or Utah growing up.
“We’re big USC fans. It wasn’t a hard transition at all,” he said. “It was hard from the aspect of I made some friends, but coming here hasn’t been hard at all.”
Utah was his first post-BYU choice.
“There was a few schools that contacted me, but I definitely had my sights set on staying close to home just so my family could come to my games,” Bernard said. “Utah was the easiest choice for me knowing that we’re local people. My family could make it to at least 50 percent of my games. It made my decision a lot easier.”
It hasn’t been easy for everybody, he admits.
Though there were SoCal allegiances in the family, some of his relatives have blue blood, too.
“My grandparents are big BYU guys so just having them switch from blue to red was a big deal for them,” Bernard said with a smile. “Every week I’m like, ‘Look, we just got to convert and be Utah people.’ But they’ve come along.”