How the college lacrosse top player became a rookie-free agent who signed with the Atlanta Falcons

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FLOWERED GREEN, Ga. – The three men met together at Breezy Park in Huntington, New York, out of season – 331 college lacrosse goals and a shared passion for football between them.

Chris Hogan was the experienced, retired from a 10-year NFL career. Tom Kennedy enters his fourth season as a Detroit Lions receiver. Along with them was one of the most accomplished college lacrosse players ever, trying to make the same transition they did.

Jared Bernhardt scored 202 goals in Maryland, led the Terrapins to the national championship game on Memorial Day weekend in 2021 and won the Tewaaraton Award as the best player in college lacrosse. Now he was here, in a field on Long Island, spending a day running routes and getting advice from those who already made it.

Bernhardt tries to emulate Hogan and Kennedy – who go from college lacrosse, with a college football pit stop, to the NFL – as an exhausted free agent at the Atlanta Falcons.

“It certainly gives some hope,” Bernhardt said. “But you take it day by day.”

Bernhardt’s transition may be more difficult than Kennedy or Hogan. Kennedy stayed at the same school and played three seasons of football and lacrosse at Bryant. Hogan moved from Penn State to Monmouth for a season of football and played several positions in 2010, including receiver.

Bernhardt’s journey started with a recruitment to the Navy as a triple-option quarterback, but he chose lacrosse in Maryland. His family is a lacrosse family – brothers Jesse and Jake are college lacrosse trainers and professional players. But it is also a football. Bernhardt’s father, Jim, had been a college football coach for many years before working for Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans as director of football research.

Then Jim Bernhardt was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died in 2019. When Jim was ill, he and Jared had talked about the young man possibly playing football after lacrosse. The idea stuck.

That fall, as Bernhardt began preparing for what he thought would be his final college lacrosse season in 2020, he began to consider his footballing future. He visited Stony Brook and Long Island University as a potential recipient. He also contacted Ferris State and sent an email explaining why he wanted to play football to coach Tony Annese.

“He wanted to play college football to honor his father, and that was his dream with his father,” Annese said. “Everyone loves a good story, right? But then it comes to the film.

“My son [Ferris State offensive coordinator Steve Annese] watched the movie and said, ‘You need to see this kid.’ Just appearing in the movie about his high school career as a quarterback was a no-brainer for me. “

Annese recruited Bernhardt as a quarterback. Bernhardt committed to Ferris State before seeing campus before what was to be his final lacrosse season. Annese asked him if he would come visit first. Although the Bernhardt family was initially to map Google Big Rapids, Michigan, Bernhardt probably watched movies. He would play lacrosse for one more season and then move on to football.

In six matches, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down university sports. Bernhardt reckoned his lacrosse career was over. He started preparing for football. So, in the summer, I found out that Ferris State’s football season was canceled. Bernhardt returned home to Florida and trained for football.

Except he wasn’t quite done with lacrosse. Maryland coach John Tillman offered him a chance to return. In the beginning, Bernhardt was non-committal. Then he discovered he was missing lacrosse.

“I was probably a little more surprised that he actually came back to play lacrosse,” said Jesse Bernhardt, who is an assistant in Maryland. “I was not sure. I think there was a part of him that was almost ready to end that chapter.”

He then completed the best offensive season in Maryland history, setting school career records for points (290) and goals (202). He led the Terrapins to the national championship game, where they lost to Virginia.

All season, I’ve been studying Ferris’ spring football movie. After the title game, he reached out to Annese and told him he was ready right away. Anne encouraged him to take a break before showing up in June.

At the time, Annese was unsure who was going to play quarterback. By the end of the first quarter of the first game, when Bernhardt hurried to three touchdowns against Findlay, there were no questions asked.

Ferris State went undefeated and won the Division II national championship. As a double-threat quarterback – injuries limited him to 10 games – Bernhardt completed 70.7% of his passes in 1,322 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. They have 159 times for 1,421 yards and 26 touchdowns. And he had one reception on 33 yards.

“His lateral skills were just better than any I’ve ever seen,” Annese said. “His ability to make someone miss, just extraordinary.”

It also caught Falcon’s coach Arthur Smith’s attention. Smith, a lacrosse fan since high school in Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington, DC, watched Bernhardt’s lacrosse movie alongside football. He liked how Bernhardt understood distance and how he attacked the fold.

The difference he has to learn is in the structure. In football, everything is on a route timing and precision compared to lacrosse free-flowing movement.

“We’ll see if that can translate,” Smith said. “He has not played receiver so we will see if he can help us there. And if he can, the role may be expanded. “

That’s one of the things Bernhardt took from Hogan and Kennedy. This is not going to be easy. There will be learning in the workplace.

Hogan offered most advice. Kennedy told him to be patient, because when he made the transition, it took a while to become familiar with the nuances and precision of the routes.

“These are moves he has not done in a long time,” Kennedy said. “Or maybe ever.”

Bernhardt said Kennedy and Hogan helped him learn grid exercises, postures, and get in and out of breaks.

“I appreciate those guys doing it,” Bernhardt said. “And hope, no matter what happens, I inspire another child who is a multisport man who might want to do something similar.”

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