Mon, 21 Sep 2020

Name To Know: LB Bernard's Long Road To The NFL

Dallas Cowboys
04 Aug 2020, 20:24 GMT+10

(Editor's Note: With training camp finally beginning, there are countless names that will shape the way this Cowboys season plays out. On a team with this much star power, some of those names are better known than others. This series seeks to identify some of the unheralded members of the Cowboys' roster, highlighting how they might make the team and have an impact on the 2020 season.)

Who Is He? LB Francis Bernard

How Did He Get Here? It has been a long and winding road to the NFL for Bernard, who signed with the Cowboys as a priority free agent.

He spent the last two seasons as a mainstay in a star-studded Utah defense, earning first-team All-Pac 12 honors after tallying 85 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2019. Prior to that, he took a church mission before beginning his career with Utah's in-state rival, BYU. He ended his Cougar career with an 80-tackle 2016 season, but he ultimately left BYU for violating the school's honor code. He was arrested for suspicion of DUI in 2017.

Despite that misstep, Bernard was cleared to transfer to Utah, and he clearly made the most of the opportunity. He was one of the leaders of a defense that finished No. 2 in the nation, eventually seeing six of its members get drafted - including Bernard's Cowboys teammate, Bradlee Anae.

Bernard may not ultimately have been drafted, but he clearly did enough to earn an NFL opportunity.

Career Highlight: Anyone that is named first-team All-Pac 12 is going to have a few career highlights, and Bernard is no exception. He was named Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Week twice in 2019.

But one of those occasions stands out above the others. Utah opened its 2019 season in Provo, Utah against BYU - where Bernard started his college career. Bernard made four tackles in a 30-12 win, but the highlight came in the second quarter, when BYU quarterback Zach Wilson made an ill-advised desperation throw in an attempt to avoid a sack. Bernard easily stepped in front of the ball and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, giving the Utes a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

How Does He Make It: On one hand, the Cowboys' linebacker position might be the easiest depth chart to predict. They employ two young stars in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, as well as two valuable veterans in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas. That's four roster spots that are more or less guaranteed. Throw in Justin March and Luke Gifford, and it's hard to find any wiggle room.

At the same time, there isn't a ton of competition at the back of the depth chart. The only other rookie linebacker on this year's squad was Azur Kamara, but he was moved to injured reserve over the weekend. That means Bernard isn't battling many other bodies for a roster spot. If he plays well enough, he could convince the coaching staff to keep him as a seventh linebacker - or at the very least as a practice squad player. And if he manages to outplay Gifford or March, his chances could improve even more dramatically.

How He Can Help: The guy clearly has a nose for the ball. In his final three college seasons, he averaged 67 tackles per year - and he only started two games in his first season at Utah. Even more intriguing than his tackling ability are his ball skills. He managed three interceptions in his final season at BYU, and he finished with three career picks at Utah - including two in his senior season.

All of that could help him earn a roster spot. Realistically, though, if Bernard makes the team he'll likely see a lot of special teams duty. But with his own penchant for making tackles and John Fassel's abilities as a special teams coach, he could do some solid work there in the early going of his career.

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