Cougars look to fill gap left by Bernard at linebacker

Ari Davis
Francis Bernard waits for a tackle in the game against SUU. Bernard may be transferring, leaving a gap in BYU’s defense at linebacker. (Ari Davis)

Update, 8/22: No official decision has been made on Bernard’s status and defensive coordinator Tuiaki has since retracted his comments from Monday, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Every new season of college football brings with it questions about rosters, personnel and depth.

For BYU, two big questions are who replaces all-time leading rusher Jamaal Williams and Kai Nacua at free safety, and how does the team grow as a whole in year two under Coach Kalani Sitake?

Amidst all the uncertainties, one group that seemed solid entering fall camp was the linebackers.

All three starters were returning, with Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard ready to pick up where they left off last year after combining for 249 total tackles, seven interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.

However, that solidity was shattered as fall camp ended and the team announced Bernard would redshirt this season for personal reasons.

The team did not announced any decision on Bernard’s future at a press briefing on Monday.

Now, with the season opening set for Aug. 26, the team has to find someone to fill that gap.

An updated depth chart that was released by the team on Monday, Aug. 21, listed senior Matt Hadley and junior Adam Pulsipher as the one-two at the position.

“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can play there,” Sitake said. “We’ve worked with Adam Pulsipher, Jonny Tapusoa’s been there, we had Matt Hadley move there a little bit and play; Hadley can play a lot of different positions, you’ve got so much athleticism.”

Hadley had been a projected starter at free safety before his move to linebacker.

“I think (Hadley)’s struggling with keeping the weight off, so it just makes sense to let him eat freely and get big and play linebacker,” Sitake said.

Hadley’s shift opens a spot at safety, where Zayne Anderson and Tanner Jacobson saw extensive actions last year.

Utah transfer Austin Lee and Marvin Hifo will also look to factor into the position while Kamel Greene, who’s moved over from corner, Sam Baldwin and Sawyer Powell will look to contribute as well.

Pulsipher saw time at linebacker with the first string defense towards the end of fall camp.

“The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in (Pulsipher’s) ability. He knows the playbook and he’s always in the right spot, so he’ll see a lot of plays,” Warner said. “Matt Hadley just came down from DB and he’s playing that same position, so we’ll see how that battle goes and who’ll start week one.”

Sitake added that Isaiah Kaufusi and Morgan Unga are coming along at linebacker and Will Sedgwick and Christian Folau could also factor into the position this fall.

“There’s enough bodies, just got to get enough playing time and get them ready at that position specifically,” Sitake said.

Warner said the defense will be able to adjust despite the loss of Bernard.

“We always have the mentality of ‘next guy up,'” he said. “Obviously, (Bernard) is my boy and the fact that he has to redshirt sucks, but we have players in that meeting room that are going to step up and make plays for us.”

Warner added that four-star recruit Chaz Ah You has also been with the linebackers. Ah You was projected to see time as a safety before this week.

Even though the team has little time to adjust before the season starts, Sitake said the team is working on establishing depth to avoid problems with unforeseen circumstances in the future.

“I shouldn’t say we should be prepared for everything, but there’s always got to be a plan and try to develop depth,” Sitake said. “We’ve had some injuries; there’s always something that adds to the game that you have to rely on depth, and that’s what we’re trying to do, is establish more depth in our program and this is just one of those moments.”

The Cougars will open the season on Saturday, Aug. 26 at home against FCS opponent Portland State with a 1 p.m. MDT kickoff. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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