To say Jared Bernhardt is a quick study would be a gross understatement.
The Ferris State quarterback, who has propelled the Bulldogs to an 8-0 record and No. 1 ranking in Division II, was a prolific high school quarterback who ran the triple option.
But that was four years ago.
Bernhardt hadn’t donned a football uniform since his days at Longwood (Florida) Lake Brantley High because he went on to become one of the nation’s premier college lacrosse players. He was a three-time All-American and the all-time leader in career goals (202) and points (290) at Maryland.
The graduate transfer, who won the starting QB job before the season, has been nothing short of remarkable since arriving in Big Rapids.
Despite missing three of Ferris State’s first eight games due to a knee issue, Bernhardt has completed 78.7% of his passes (59-for-75 for 964 yards) to go along with a team-best 654 yards rushing (averaging 130.8 yards per game).
“I wouldn’t even say I’m up to speed right now, there’s still a lot going on,” said Bernhardt, who won the 2021 Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy. “But I think I’ve definitely gotten better as time has gone on. Still trying to improve and learn each and every day. There’s always something that you can get better at.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Bernhardt, who has already won the GLIAC Offensive Player of the Week award four times, took a crash course in learning the Bulldogs’ playbook.
“It’s a little different than high school,” Bernhardt said. “There’s a lot going on at the collegiate level, there’s a lot to learn. You got to learn everything, all this different stuff. Being my first year I’m trying to cram into one and make the most of everything, so there’s definitely a lot coming at you, but they’ve really done a good job at helping me, especially the other quarterbacks ... they’ve helped me out a lot going into camp.”
Bernhardt, who totaled more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns in his final two seasons in high school playing directly under center, had to re-acclimate himself to football and learn to play out of the Ferris State's shotgun offense.
“That was probably one of the harder things, learning the plays, the hand signals and you’ve got all these things going on,” Bernhardt said. “A lot to process at one time, but as time goes on it gets a little bit easier. It’s still definitely tough for sure.”
At the urging of one of his older brothers, also lacrosse standouts at Maryland, Bernhardt decided to scratch his football itch once again for his fifth and final year of athletic eligibility. He sent emails to any Division I program that would listen.
Jared came from a rich football family background — his father, Jim, who died in 2019, coached in college and under Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans.
Ferris State coach Tony Annese, who has built one of the nation’s premier Division II football programs, took a flyer on Bernhardt, and the tape didn’t lie.
“Watching him play lacrosse I could just tell that he was an extraordinarily gifted in his movement skills,” Annese said. “In my mind, I was kind of saying, ‘A winner is a winner is a winner’ kind of deal. So, I was thinking: Man, this dude is a winner. He’s going to do some great things for us, but has he surprised me? Yes, because he’s beyond anything I could ever imagined. He’s such a winner, so professional and tuned into the game plan and learning the fundamental skills at the position.”
Bernhardt put no expectations on himself when he joined the program. He just took it one practice at a time.
“I chose this place because of the culture and stuff,” Bernhardt said. “I knew it would be really competitive, so I just told myself, come every day and compete, and just work hard every day, and whatever happens, happens. I wasn’t worried about playing a single second or not. I just wanted to help the team each and every day and just compete."
Annese said Bernhardt is the first player on the field and the last to leave. He spends countless hours studying in the coaches' office.
“It’s beyond my imagination as to how gifted he is and how committed he is, how professional he is to be the best,’ Annese said. “He’s got the football background and the competitive background. He’s got the attitude that he can never be 100% pleased with himself. He’s a perfectionist and I think he’s never walked off that field thinking he played well.”
After leading Ferris to lopsided wins during the first two weeks against Findlay (54-14) and Ashland (45-19), the dual threat QB sat out the next three games before returning in Week 6 to lead the Bulldogs past Grand Valley State, 35-28.
“If he didn’t have the injuries, he probably would have rushed for 1,000 yards already,” Annese said. “As it is, he’s rushed for a lot of yards as a quarterback. The injury kind of set him back as far as statistics, but if he didn’t have the injuries, he’d be the leading candidate for the Division II Player of the Year.”
Annese had the luxury of holding out Bernhardt until he was completely healed, as the Bulldogs head into Saturday’s GLIAC clash at Davenport (3-6, 1-3) with two other QBs whothat have played key roles.
Sophomore Mylik Mitchell, a transfer from Kent State, has appeared in all eight games and has thrown for 863 yards (56-for-82) and seven TDs, while junior Evan Cummins (Livonia Churchill) has also played his part in seven games, throwing for 364 yards and seven TDs while also rushing for five TDs.
“We’ve got our share of good quarterbacks for sure, and they’ve been really loyal to one another, which is really cool to see,” Annese said.
Bernhardt deferred a chance for a year to play for the 2021 champion Chaos of the Professional Lacrosse League, which own his rights for two years.
Meanwhile, the two sports have many similarities.
“Lacrosse is considered the fastest game on two feet,” the Ferris QB said. “And coming out here with Coach (Annese), the practices are fast. You’re going period to period and stuff like that. No wasting time and such ... I’d say both are pretty fast paced."
Bernhardt is used to playing in championship tournaments; Maryland reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and 2019 and making the national title game in May.
Annese believes he has the right signal caller with the perfect demeanor to show his team how to advance in the Division II football tournament. Ferris State was the No. 1 seed in 2019 but lost in the national semifinals.
“He’s very even keel, is the best way to describe him,” Annese said. “He’s just gritty, but never really up or never really down. He’s complete steady on the field and off the field, everything he does. He’s just like that steady, even-keel personality all the time.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jared Bernhardt: From Maryland lacrosse to Ferris State QB