The Utah Utes have been a dominant Pac-12 opponent this season. They currently boast the third-best total defense in the country and the number nine ranking in the most recent AP Poll. They owe much of their success to the outstanding play of senior linebacker Francis Bernard, who has been one of college football’s breakout stars of this season. Over the summer, Tony Pauline graded Bernard as a fourth-round prospect. This season, Utah’s Bernard is making a case to be an early pick in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft.  

Breaking down Bernard

Nothing really jumps out on Bernard’s stat sheet this season: 50 total tackles (tied for 224th), 4.5 tackles for loss, and no sacks. However, Bernard has two interceptions (a third was called back on a penalty), which, while not eyebrow-raising, is a number that stands out. Linebackers who can make plays in coverage are incredibly valuable in the NFL, and Bernard has been a disruptor in pass defense.

Many linebackers specialize in either defending the run or dropping into pass coverage. Francis Bernard does both at a high level. In fact, I’d argue that Bernard is one of the most well-rounded linebacker prospects in recent memory. While the senior LB may not blow up the NFL Draft Combine, teams are going to be blown away when they hear him in meetings.

“If there’s a ‘quarterback’ on the defensive side of the ball, that’s who I am,” Bernard said in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. “I make every single call; everything kind of filters through the linebacker in order to get everyone in the right spot. If I don’t, someone’s going to mess up.”

Clearly, Bernard’s quarterbacking role is working for the Utes. Utah has the third-best total defense, as well as the number one rushing defense, fourth-best scoring defense, and the third-best third-down defense in the country. You can see the cogs in Bernard’s head turn as he scans and anticipates plays developing. He’s an intense presence in the film room, and you can see the fruits of that labor with his recognition of opposing offenses.

This rep is against Mike Leach’s Washington State team. Leach is known for his ingenious offensive designs. This is a middle screen to the running back Max Borghi, who is one of the most dynamic offensive players in college football. Watch how quickly Bernard reads the screen, plants his foot, and fires through two offensive linemen to demolish Borghi. 

Bernard anticipated the play faster than the offensive linemen could block him, and he made them pay for it. Bernard is a terrific tackler who isn’t afraid to lower the boom on the offense. Teams in the NFL Draft will love Francis Bernard for the high IQ he displays every down. 

Criticisms

Bernard does have some issues that might prevent him from being drafted high. He carries some off-the-field issues spanning from his time at BYU. They are more minor than most, however, and hopefully, his journey from learning from his mistakes will win over any character filters a team employs.

Bernard is on the older end of the spectrum for prospects entering the draft, as he will be 25 entering the draft (currently 24). During his time at BYU, Bernard underwent a mission trip that kept him out of football for a few seasons. He has had a lengthy collegiate career being from the recruiting class of 2013, a year before fellow BYU LB Fred Warner, who is now in his second year with the 49ers.

Lastly, Bernard isn’t an elite-level athlete. He’s good in this area, but not like the two linebackers that were first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft: Devin White and Devin Bush. However, his elite instincts and play recognition are above what either Devin featured and I believe will matter more. 

Verdict

To sum up, Bernard is a wrecking ball enforcer for the Utah Utes and looks the part of an NFL-ready linebacker. Bernard displays borderline elite play recognition, as well as NFL-ready instincts. He’s a playmaker against the run and the pass and he is the ‘quarterback’ of the Utah defense. Francis Bernard can join Eric Rowe, Garrett Bolles, and Marquise Blair as recent top-50 picks in the NFL Draft from Utah.

Bernard can play as a MIKE or a WILL linebacker in the NFL and reminds me of fellow Pac-12 star linebacker Eric Kendricks. Much like Kendricks, Bernard’s “size” and lack of elite athleticism will keep him out of the first-round but will make him a steal for whichever team scoops him up afterward.