SOUTH BEND — That JD Bertrand’s name would even come up in casual conversation Friday at Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s first info-fest of the preseason would have been significant.
The fact that the June-arriving freshman linebacker — until six weeks ago a roster defection away from starting the season as an academic scholarship-fueled walk-on, essentially — actually was mentioned in more significant terms by Kelly is a subtle sign of progress.
Long term, the most appreciable way the Irish program under Kelly can address the gap between itself and the Clemson machine that dismissed ND from its first College Football Playoff experience last Dec. 29 by a 30-3 count is recruiting.
For this particular Notre Dame team, though, to make advances in the short term, for a team that had a 9-3 look about it at the end of spring, it’s about amassing surprises over the summer and into training camp — the good kind. Like Bertrand.
The more real and plentiful they are, the better the odds are that the win total creeps upward.
The other part of the surprise equation that’s a necessity is showing the resilience to overcome the bad ones.
On Sunday, those surprises move from perceptual to either tangible or oversold, as the first practice of training camp is staged at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., a 55-minute bus ride southwest of campus.
The first practice in South Bend, session No. 6 overall, will be Aug. 10. The Irish open the season in prime time Monday, Sept. 2, at Louisville.
Most of Friday’s benevolent news involved injured players coming back at or ahead of schedule — resoundingly so in some cases.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool is the one who will be eased into training camp activities after undergoing a minor procedure on his right ankle in mid-June.
“He had the tightrope procedure done that (Alabama quarterback) Tua Tagovailoa had,” Kelly said. “He had a high ankle sprain. The volume that he’s going to play at, we wanted to tighten down and make sure we had no residual issues with the ankle.”
An ankle he vertically jumped a career-best 40 inches on with the sprain in summer testing, days before the surgery.
“Chase is cleared to do everything,” Kelly said. “I think you’re going to see somebody that will round into the kind of physical player that he is, as he gets into more one-on-one and more change of direction football related.
“We haven’t asked him to get in and out of explosive cuts. We’re not going to throw a heavy load on him in the first three, four, five days. We’re going to slowly get him back up to 100 percent and then peak him for Louisville.”
The most unexpected and the most relevant both involved offensive linemen. Grad senior Trevor Ruhland at one point in the spring was a serious candidate to exit the roster as a medical hardship due to a potpourris of chronic injuries.
Now he’ll be counted on as a player who can excel as a key backup at all three interior line positions.
“Really proud of the way he was able to take care of himself,” Kelly said. “Really worked hard this summer. He’s in the best shape of his life, and he’s really going to be able to provide us the kind of veteran presence that he did last year for us.”
One reason he won’t be needed immediately is that junior Aaron Banks is well ahead of his expected timetable after undergoing foot surgery in June. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound starter at left guard is a player who could end the 2019 season as ND’s best offensive lineman.
“He was able to do everything in the last three weeks fully cleared,” Kelly said. “Any time you talk about a foot with a big fella, you’re nervous at times, but it’s gone very, very well there, and he finished the summer extremely pleased with where he is.”
The other returns factor greatly into some of ND’s position group battles that are in most need of a boost.
Shaun Crawford’s strong summer, after his third season-ending injury in four years (torn ACL), gives the Irish another candidate for the vacant starting spot at field cornerback and/or the starting nickel job.
Sophomore Ja’mion Franklin, back at 100 percent from a nasty injury in which his quad tendon detached from the bone last fall, and freshman Hunter Spears, cleared from a November ACL tear sustained while still in high school, give the interior defensive line two eventual high-ceiling players who can at least provided much-needed depth at this stage.
Junior Drew White, out for most of spring following March shoulder surgery, will re-enter the mosh pit of candidates competing for the three open linebacker spots. There is no position group that enters training camp with more uncertainty. And yet there seems like there’s no shortage of eventual answers, either.
The intrigue of August is how many of them can become short-term answers as well.
And that’s where Bertrand has emerged as a surprise unrelated to injury, but extensively coupled with outstanding instincts and worth ethic.
Of ND’s four linebackers in its 2019 freshman class — Osita Ekwonu, Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser and Bertrand — the Roswell, Ga., product (now listed at 6-1, 226) was the perceived afterthought, from the outside looking in.
He signed with Notre Dame last December with no guarantee of an athletic scholarship after being recruited over, at Georgia, the school to which he originally committed.
“JD Bertrand is physically able to be thrown into that mix as well,” Kelly said of a group that had thinned down to six candidates for the three starting positions after spring. “He’s shown himself physically to be one of those guys, but we’ve got to go see him with the pads on.”
Ten of the 13 linebackers/rovers on the Irish roster have freshman or sophomore eligibility and only Asmar Bilal can’t return next season, so depth chart movement may become an ongoing thing over the next few seasons.
Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea feel so strongly about the potential of the group, coupled with limited overall numbers in the 2020 class, that they’ve passed on some standout linebacker prospects they had a good chance of landing.
August is about turning that potential into production — now — and perpetuating the unexpected, especially at the linebacker position group.
“I have worked our schedule to make sure we get more reads for key linebackers to see them flow to the football,” Kelly said of his training camp template.
“That’s an important part of our evaluation, giving them the opportunity and giving Clark enough evaluation to both chart to see how their production is as well as see it and make some evaluations as to how that’s all going to pan out.”
All while keeping an open mind as year 10 of the Kelly Era begins to unfold.
“Ten years anywhere is a journey that you just have to be able to learn, keep working on yourself, and keep pushing the envelope too at the same time,” Kelly said. “Never get satisfied. We got a taste of what it’s like to be in the playoffs. I want to win the darn thing.
“So I think probably never be satisfied with where you are and never get to the point where you think you know it all. Always be working on yourself and trying to get better at your job.”