How college lacrosse's top player became a rookie free-agent signing with the Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The three men got together at Breezy Park in Huntington, New York, this offseason -- 331 college lacrosse goals and a shared passion for football between them.

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

Jared Bernhardt scored 202 goals at 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 here he was, on a field in Long Island, spending a day running routes and gleaning advice from those who already managed it.

Bernhardt is attempting to mimic Hogan and Kennedy -- going from college lacrosse, with a college football pit stop, to the NFL -- as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons.

“It definitely gives you 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, playing three seasons of football and lacrosse at Bryant. Hogan transferred from Penn State to Monmouth for one season of football and played multiple positions in 2010, including receiver.

Bernhardt’s journey started with a recruitment to Navy as a triple-option quarterback, but he chose lacrosse at Maryland. His family is a lacrosse family -- brothers Jesse and Jake are college lacrosse coaches and professional players. But It also is a football one. Bernhardt’s father, Jim, had been a longtime college football coach 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 sick, he and Jared had talked about the young man possibly playing football after lacrosse. The idea stuck.

That fall, as Bernhardt began to prepare for what he thought would be his final college lacrosse season in 2020, he started considering his football future. He took visits to Stony Brook and Long Island University as a potential receiver. He also reached out to Ferris State, sending an email explaining why he wanted to play football to coach Tony Annese.

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

“My son [Ferris State offensive coordinator Steve Annese] watched the film and said, ‘You got to see this kid.’ Just popping in the film of his high school career as a quarterback, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Annese recruited Bernhardt as a quarterback. Bernhardt committed to Ferris State before seeing the campus, before what was supposed to be his final lacrosse season. Annese asked him if he wanted to visit first. Even though the Bernhardt family initially had to Google map Big Rapids, Michigan, Bernhardt saw enough on film. He would play lacrosse for one more season and then transition to football.

Six games in, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports. Bernhardt figured his lacrosse career was over. He started preparing for football. Then, in the summer, he found out 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. Initially, Bernhardt was noncommittal. Then he found he missed lacrosse.

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

He then completed the best offensive season in Maryland history and set 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, he studied Ferris’ spring football film. After the title game, he reached out to Annese and told him he was ready immediately. Annese encouraged him to take a break before he showed up in June.

At that point, Annese was unsure who would play quarterback. By the end of the first quarter of the first game, when Bernhardt rushed for three touchdowns against Findlay, there were no questions.

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

“His lateral skills were just better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Annese said. “His capacity to make somebody miss, just extraordinary.”

It also caught Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s attention. Smith, a lacrosse fan since high school at Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington, D.C., watched Bernhardt’s lacrosse film along with football. He liked how Bernhardt understood spacing and how he attacked the crease.

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

“We’ll see if it can translate,” Smith said. “He hasn’t played receiver, so we’ll see if he can help us there. And if he can, maybe the role expands.”

It’s one of the things Bernhardt took from Hogan and Kennedy. This isn’t going to be easy. There is going to be on-the-job learning.

Hogan offered the most advice. Kennedy told him to be patient because when he made the transition it took a while to get comfortable with the nuance and preciseness of the routes.

“It’s movements he hasn’t done in a long time,” Kennedy said. “Or maybe ever.”

Bernhardt said Kennedy and Hogan helped him with learning route-tree drills, stances and getting in and out of breaks.

“I appreciate those guys from doing that,” Bernhardt said. “And hope whatever happens, I inspire some other kid that’s a multi-sport guy that maybe wants to do something similar.”