New wideout Bernard makes strong first impression

Juco WR should give Cats another weapon in the passing game...

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- For most players making the jump from the junior college ranks to a Southeastern Conference football program, one would expect the size and speed of the competition or the tempo of practice to be the biggest initial adjustment.

Not so with one of the newest Kentucky Wildcats, wide receiver Chris Bernard.

For the Mission Viejo, Calif., native, picking out his daily wardrobe has been the toughest challenge since enrolling at UK in January.

A sweater and a heavy coat one day, a T-shirt and a jacket the next. Welcome to the Bluegrass State.

"The only that's really bothering me is the weather," Bernard said. "Compared to Southern California weather, I tell you, this is different. But I'm getting used to it."

So different that Bernard's first two days of practice as a Wildcat have been forced indoors due to chilly temperatures and the swamp-like conditions of the team's normal practice fields. But inside the comfy confines of the Nutter Field House, he's making a nice first impression on his new coaches and teammates.

The 6-foot-1, 189-pound junior made several impressive catches on Wednesday, including a number of acrobatic grabs in traffic. They were the kind of plays that made him a juco All-American at Saddleback College, where he caught 61 passes for 957 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, as well as the kind of performance the UK staff desires from receivers in its high-powered passing attack.

"He's got all the things we've been looking for," UK receivers coach Harold Jackson said. "He's got the release ability, the great speed, the hands, the concentration... all the things we were lacking in one single player last year.

"He's a guy that's going to get on the field right away for us."

Last year, Kentucky's receiving corps got off to a slow start as the offense as a whole struggled out of the gates. But as the season progressed, Derek Abney (66 receptions, 741 yards, 6 TD), Aaron Boone (18, 268, 6 TD) and Tommy Cook (20, 298, 3 TD) emerged as three reliable targets.

Bernard, who picked Kentucky over Colorado State, Montana and a number of other schools, could give the Cats a fourth weapon in 2002.

"I think I bring a lot of experience coming from a juco, and I'm really versatile," he said. "I can play the slot or outside. I can go for the deep ball or play the possession receiver, whatever they need me to do in this offense.

"One of the reasons I chose this school is the offense is really similar to what we ran (at Saddleback) -- a lot of four-wide, one-back sets. So coming here really wasn't that big of a change for me. I feel really comfortable in this offense."

He also felt comfortable casting his lot with the UK coaching staff.

"Coach Jackson, being such a high-profile coach and an NFL star, and coach Morriss being an NFL lineman for so long --- all that experience --- it was a big influence on my decision to come here," Bernard said.

At this time last year, however, he would have been hard pressed to tell you anything about the Cats or the state of Kentucky.

"I was real surprised when they called," Bernard said. "When I picked up the phone... and they said, 'Hi Chris, this is the coach from Kentucky,' I was like, 'Kentucky?'

"But I started doing some research on them, found out they were in the SEC and talked with the coaches, so I knew that they threw the ball a lot. I just decided it was probably the best place for me to play against the best competition."

Thus far, he hasn't backed away from the competition in practice. Jackson has been most impressed by Bernard's concentration level and ability to make the tough catch while being draped by a defender.

"That shows you the kid is mentally into it and wants the ball," he said. "He goes after the ball like it's his every time."

Said Bernard: "I think that's my specialty -- making adjustments to the ball when it's in the air and going after it."

He's still getting acclimated, however, to the velocity with which his new quarterbacks throw the ball.

"I've got blood blisters all over my forearms and hards from him," Bernard said of junior quarterback Jared Lorenzen. "But I like that because I know the ball's going to get there, and even if the DB's on me, if I don't catch it, he's probably not going to either."

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