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Look for Utah’s Bernard, Lloyd to be at center of things Saturday vs. Northern Illinois

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) gets dragged down as he tries to throw a pass that is intercepted Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard, who ran it back for a touchdown during the University of Utah at BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) gets dragged down as he tries to throw a pass that is intercepted Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard, who ran it back for a touchdown during the University of Utah at BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah linebacker Francis Bernard, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, had one of those moments in the Utes’ 30-12 win at BYU. Playing his first game at LaVell Edwards Stadium since leaving the Cougars following the 2016 season, the senior returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown.

“It was fun. I don’t know if ‘extra special’ are the words. I expect myself to make plays and I happened to get a pick-six thanks to the D-line hitting home and beginning a disruptive play for me,” Bernard said. “So I expected it. It was special in the moment, but I’m past it now and we’re just looking forward to NIU.”

Despite any feelings associated with his transfer from BYU to Utah, Francis insists it was just about football at the end of the day.

“I’m happy I’m here,” he said. “It happened and I’m glad it happened. There’s a lot more plays to be made in the season. So we’re ready for what’s next.”

Even so, Bernard admits it felt a little weird wearing red at the stadium in Provo. However, he felt comfortable there and was ready to just play his best game.

”It was awesome to see him play well and excel. He is a great kid. I love Francis Bernard. He is one of our great leaders and he has been a model citizen since he’s been here,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “All he does is work hard and do what he is supposed to do. So it is gratifying seeing kids that are getting a second chance and take advantage of it and make the most of it. He is certainly doing that at this point.”

Francis and teammate Devin Lloyd had strong showings as starters in place of the graduated Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. Lloyd made five tackles (sharing team-high honors with safety Julian Blackmon) at BYU, while Bernard had four stops and the pick-six.

“We feel really good about Francis and Devin as our starting guys in the 4-2 scheme,” said Whittingham, who noted that Bernard’s conference award speaks to the level of his play. “They’re both solid players — beyond solid players — they’re outstanding players.”

Whittingham added that one game in, he “couldn’t be more pleased with what they brought to the table.”

The timing may not be better as Utah gears up for its home opener against Northern Illinois.

Linebackers played a big role in last season’s 17-6 win over the Huskies. Starters Barton and Hansen led the Utes with 12 tackles apiece. Hansen wound up sealing the outcome with a 40-yard interception return for a score with just 2:36 remaining.

The position group, Whittingham explained, should also be a factor every week.

“They are right in the center of the defense and with our scheme they should be our leading tacklers,” he said. “So we expect production out of those guys week in and week out. There’s never any difference there.”

Bernard noted that the best is yet to come for Utah’s new starting linebackers.

“It was a good first game,” he said. “We have a lot to work on, a lot to grow on, and so we’re going to work on all that stuff we need to fix from last game this week and just get better and better each week.”

EXTRA POINTS: Utah is seeking its seventh consecutive 2-0 start to a season. ... The Utes are 12-1 in home openers under Whittingham. ... The Ute Walk is slated for 8:30 a.m., at Guardsman Way and 500 South. Fans will receive Utah flags.